Samuel Osgood’s relatives might sit around their dinner table and recount with some pride that teetering on a leaf on a limb of the family tree is the first Postmaster General in the United States of America. At my dinner table, he’s famous for the 15 words he strung together one night, after reflecting on the rarity of a good handshake: I love a hand that meets my own with a grasp that causes some sensation. Osgood died 200 years ago but I am certain that were he alive today and willing to come to dinner at mine, he’d be saying exactly the same thing.
I get to shake a lot of hands. It’s part of my job. And I am constantly amazed at the poor quality handshakes I meet. Lads – listen up! We women are not so delicate that you have to be wary of causing some sensation. Straighten up. Get a grip. Be men, for God’s sake. Likewise, ladies, this applies to you, too. Don’t let the side down. I’m sure there’s many a man out there who would like to grasp a hand that causes some sensation.
While some may think the handshake to be little more than a formality, to others it speaks volumes. I’m in the volume camp. There’s a theory out there that the handshake originated with knights clasping the arms of their opponents to ensure that they weren’t hiding daggers up their sleeves. An age-old expression of equality, it is hard not to read a novel into something that comes across as anything less than equal.
I’ve studied this subject in some detail and have participated in a number of Diplomatic Protocol and Etiquette workshops. Granted, I’m not exactly renowned for my expertise on handshakes, yet I figure I pay them more attention than most.
Let’s have a look a what’s out there:
The macho cowboy handshake: Think John Wayne on a bad day. Think bone crusher. Think macho man wanting to assert his manliness, be it with the little lady or someone he feels superior to. This is guaranteed to make me wince and you’ll know you’re doing it when you see my hand go white and my smile turn into a grimace.
The dead fish handshake leaves me feeling as if I’ve just held a handful of slime, an experience I’m not likely to want to repeat any time soon. The key here is that you ‘place’ your hand in mine. You expend zero effort. You leave it there for me to do with what I will. You simply can’t be bothered. And, wearing my heart on my sleeve as I do, my distaste will be clearly evident.
The early shaker handshake, also known as ‘the monarch’ or the ‘four finger’, is best avoided unless you’re of royal vintage. It smacks of superiority. It tells me that you don’t think me worthy; that you don’t consider me of the same social class; that I should be grateful to get the tips of your fingers and that you’re deigning to greet me at all.
The cold and clammy handshake is dangerous and wide open to interpretation. You could be nervous, or ill, or seriously uneasy in my company. You could suffer from agoraphobia, xenophobia, or gynophobia. Or you might simply be hungover. Or have a guilty conscience. It will certainly leave a lasting impression but perhaps not the impression you were aiming for.
The power grip smacks of ego and is usually restricted to same sex handshakes. An interesting one to watch out for though, if you’re interested in how players position themselves on the corporate ladder and wonder who is in charge. If one party has grasped the other’s hand from above, then they’re clearly stating who’s the boss.
The delayed release is one I detest. If you’re using the basic form, you simply won’t let go of my hand (the holder). If you’re using the more advanced form, then not alone will you not let go, you are also pumping up and down (the shaker). Eye contact says a lot here – perhaps too much. Be careful. You could be telling me all sorts of things you’d rather I didn’t know.
The double-hander is not one to try unless you know me really well or are significantly older and wiser than I am. Cover my hand with your second hand or take hold of my elbow while we’re shaking hands and you’ll have me wondering what’s up. What do you want from me? My vote? My approval? My undivided attention? On an intimacy level, this is a line you’d better be sure you want to cross.
The ringed torture is one a lot of us women inflict upon ourselves. Don’t be caught unawares. Stay alert. Be ready to slip that knuckle-duster from your finger if you get within clasping distance of a macho cowboy.
So lads (and ladies), take a leaf from Mark Twain’s speech, The Begum of Bengal, and note that when you meet someone you want to impress, a handshake should be: a most moving and pulse-stirring honour – the heartfelt grope of the hand, and the welcome that does not descend from the pale, grey matter of the brain but rushes up with the red blood of the heart.
For the rest of your handshakes, you’re on your own.
First published in the Budapest Times 19 April 2013