3 min

Shake on it

Someone recently told me they think it’s strange that I shake hands when I meet people. At the time I was meeting a whole bunch of youth and she thought it seemed too professional, not on their level.

It’s got me thinking. I always shake hands when I meet people, no matter how old they are, and I don’t think it’s about being professional at all.

I think of watching my parents greet people as a kid — women in dresses, men in suits — and how the women always hugged and the men shook hands. Weddings, births, funerals — different tears, same body language. Even little boys got a handshake, that silly adult-to-child handshake where they jiggle your arm around, make you uncomfortable and force you to smile so they’ll let go and leave you alone.

Little girls, like the one I was supposed to be, were expected to hug strange people in stuffy, stinky clothes, offer up full-body contact instead of just a hand; discouraged from holding people at arm’s length because it was rude and unladylike, unwelcoming.

I wonder if my handshaking today would still have seemed too professional if I were a man. There is something here about women joining the capitalist workforce and having to meet men in accordance with the social rules that were set up before we were merchants, doctors and lawyers. We shake hands in job interviews but we hug at potlucks.

I find sometimes that people look at me funny when I stick my hand out at all-women gatherings. I don’t know. It makes me feel like a gentleman. Or maybe it’s more than that.

I can’t remember when I started doing it but I think I figured out somewhere along the line that if I shook hands — and initiated it early enough in the interaction — I wouldn’t have to hug strangers anymore.

Every so often I still get caught in a stranger hug. I hate it. It makes my skin crawl and I feel like I need to take a shower. Maybe that’s just the OCD rearing its lovely head.

I am particularly conscious of my handshaking when I meet one of Andrea’s exes, or someone I see as threatening in connection to her. There is some exhibition of social power in a handshake, some sense of levelling with the person I am meeting.

A woman once said to Andrea, “So is this the wife?”

“Fuck off,” I said silently, sticking my hand out. “I see what you’re doing. I’m here. Fuck off.”

I think I aimed to come across as Andrea’s boyfriend instead of her wife, something stereotypically, socially, stronger. Something admittedly more possessive. A handshake can be very unfriendly, like “I’m willing to be civil but you aren’t fooling me.” I use it that way often.

Shaking hands is the way of greeting that best helps me remember people. I have to face them directly, meet them on an individual level, take note of them. I think the reason why I am so intent on handshaking is that it encourages me to look others in the eyes, and gets them to look me in the eyes too. This is important, especially right now, because I feel like my gaze exists as the only true visual reflection of who I am — not my clothes, not my face, my hair, the way I stand or the way I walk.

I learned to stand with a slouch when I was way taller than my classmates back in grade school and felt perpetually not graceful. I learned to walk awkwardly in sundresses, dollar-store sneakers and knee socks hiked up to cover the hair on my legs. I learned to pluck my eyebrows in a nice arc, cut my own hair when my mother refused to cut it any shorter.

My appearance is unreliable at best and my body language has suffered generations of self-consciousness. I am perpetually unlearning and relearning my own native physical tongue. It’s very tied up in my gender identity, which is, at the moment, very tied up. No wonder I often trip over my own feet.

I shake hands because it’s safe, because it’s a typically masculine way to relate to people that doesn’t make me feel vulnerable or impolite. When people hold their arms out I cringe inside, hating the way hugging leaves my chest open, the entire front surface of my body open. It’s like I’m standing in front of a really big cupboard with the doors flung open and God-knows-what inside. I figure my hands are there for just such purposes, to represent me at the end of my arm so I can keep things and people at arm’s length unless or until they turn into something I trust to be closer.

We all know people who hug everybody. Warm, outgoing people who are at home in their bodies and seem to meet new family members just walking down the street. Those people amaze me. I would definitely not say I am at home in my body, which is perhaps why I prefer the handshake. And why not? After all this time I’ve got a pretty good one.