As I get older, I find myself wondering about a lot of things I should have solved by now -it’s that old 1st Corinthian trope about putting away childish things… But the world just keeps getting more and more interesting. More and more mysterious. For instance, the kerfuffle earlier this year about handshakes –politician handshakes. Who would have thought they were actually contests? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/15/trump-yank-shake-us-president-handshakes-self-serving I don’t mean to reawaken any Trump memorabilia, but until it began to dominate those parts of the news not dedicated to titillating scandals, I didn’t think much about the obligatory grasping of hands in the endless photo ops. I probably never would have noticed whether one person patted the other’s hand during the contact or, for that matter, how long the embrace lasted. In my world, a handshake is just that: a greeting. An acknowledgement.
But as Peter Collett commented in the Guardian newspaper about Trump’s meeting with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, ‘Patting someone’s hand in this way pretends to be an affectionate gesture of approval, but its real purpose is to remind the other person who’s actually in charge. It’s what psychologists call a “status reminder”.’
And further, ‘Another way that Trump reminds people of his superior status is by patting them on the arm or back during or after the handshake, and if the other person is so bold as to pat him back, he trumps them by producing an additional, terminal pat. Trump instinctively understands the rules governing patting – which are that the more important person reserves the right to pat the less important person, and if mutual patting occurs, has the right to execute the final pat.’ Who knew…? Oh yes, and ‘[…] the most peculiar thing about Trump’s handshake style is his habit of pushing people away or, more commonly, pulling them towards him during the handshake.’ -the so-called ‘yank-shake’ –there are even names for these maneuvers…
And as in martial arts, the answer to the challenge is to preempt it: ‘When Trump greeted Justin Trudeau […], there was every expectation that he’d try to strong-arm the Canadian prime minister. But Trudeau had been well briefed, because as Trump extended his hand, Trudeau stepped right up to him, grabbing his right arm with free left hand. This, and the fact that Trudeau had managed to invade his personal space, made it virtually impossible for Trump to remind Trudeau who was really in charge by giving his hand a good yank.’ I mean, you gotta love this stuff, eh?
But what are you supposed to do when you meet someone? ‘Physical greetings are motivated by two principles: the need to express power relations or the need to express solidarity. All power greetings – whether they involve bowing, curtsying or prostration – are asymmetrical. In other words, the actions of respect performed by one person are not performed by the other. Greetings of solidarity, on the other hand, are defined by their symmetry. In the handshake, for example, the fact that both people perform the same actions makes them equal to each other – the symmetry in their actions reinforces the symmetry in their relationship.’
And yet, why in the world do we shake hands –at least in our culture? It’s not that I don’t like touching or anything; actually I think it’s quite healthy. I mean it tells a non-solipsistic world you’re actually here. That you exist –well, in terms of their sensory inputs, anyway. It’s also reassuring to know that they exist, also –especially after you retire. But the way this initial touch seems to be evolving is disquieting to say the least. I just want to say hello and get on with it; I don’t want to have to worry about my level in the tournament. And I certainly don’t want to get hurt.
I suspect we constantly judge each other, though, don’t we? It’s a usually hidden component of any interaction -especially ongoing ones. And I suppose we should all recognize and prepare for it. I am reminded, though, of Sartre’s existential play Hui Clos (No Exit, in English). It’s a rather dark treatment of three people locked together in a room in Hell for eternity where they are forced to see each other through another’s eyes. Another’s judgment. Forever…
Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch from handshake stuff, but in my mind there’s an uncomfortable parallel. I needed to talk it over with someone. I needed to vent. Brien sprang to mind…
He was, as always, busy pupating on his porch, encapsulated for the inclement November weather not in silk, but in parka and blanket. Judging by the position of his head, he was also asleep –it’s not as easy as it looks being a pupa.
I decided to cut to the chase; I decided to confront him with my hand to see how he reacted. Would he, in other words, treat me as a competitor and try to crush my hand bones –Brien is a large, albeit mainly indolent man- or would I be treated to the just-right-baby-bear handshake?
When I scaled the porch’s broken steps unscathed and extended my hand in greeting, an eye opened to inspect it. “What are you doing?” he asked and lazily wedged the other eyelid open.
Be it said that I don’t shake hands with Brien -we’ve never felt the need- so my open hand likely presented an uncomfortable dilemma for him: whether to ignore or defend. His question, however, suggested the frantic mobilization of whatever stores of testosterone he’d squirrelled away for an emergency –he’s my age, after all.
I shrugged innocently and put on my best simulacral smile. “I was just acknowledging you, Brien. Asking your permission to come aboard I guess…”
His eyes looked at each other for a moment, wondering what I was really up to. “You want to shake hands, you mean?” he asked after they straightened out again. Brien doesn’t miss a thing.
I shrugged with studied nonchalance –I didn’t want to change the rules of engagement by posing a challenge. I needed either a naïve acceptance or a rejection of the custom –both would be informative.
I could see him first study my hand, and then make some movement under the blanket on his lap as he tried to decide which hand he needed to choose. “Fine with me…” he said and brought them both out, hoping I’d head for the correct one.
The handshake was easy, both of us obviously self-conscious of the amount of pressure exerted, neither of us wishing to offend. It was a mutual probe. A polite investigation. There was no yanking, no patting, and it didn’t linger longer than felt comfortable to either of us. So I wasn’t disappointed -it was well within the Goldilocks’ zone, as I had hoped.
It was a friend’s handshake, after all.