I have often derided the bad handshake with friends, and not once has anyone said it didn’t totally bum them out. It is universally deplored. No one likes a floppy finger shimmy and no one believes the more pain, the better.
The most common of these two evils has to be the classic wet fish. Those people who just waggle their wrist in your general direction. It’s like shaking hands with a tea towel.
It’s heartbreaking if you liked the look of the person before that first, all-important, manual interaction. Because after one of these sorry handshakes, every nice thought you had about them, just trickles out of your head through your ears and dribbles slowly down your body, leaving you cold and slightly clammy, a puddle of disappointment at your feet. And if you didn’t like the look of them beforehand, it’s enough to induce a shudder of indisguisable proportions.
So I decided to put myself in the shoes of someone does the most frequent and feeble of these offensive faux pas. What was happening inside their head? I came up with the following possibilities:
- I don’t like touching people.
- I have broken my hand.
- I have secret superhuman strength and therefore fear breaking your hand.
- I don’t like to touch anything that I haven’t personally witnessed being washed.
- I know this is annoying and I am in the business of annoying people deliberately.
- I have a highly contagious disease and I am trying to infect as few people as possible (but unfortunately, I am still inextricably bound by social norms).
- I have no interest in you or making any good impression on you.
Then I tried to imagine why someone would see fit to clamp your hand beyond observed resistance until blood just gives up trying to get to the fingers:
- Touching people hard = good.
- I broke my hand last year, and now it works again, yay!
- I like hurting strangers and this is the only socially acceptable way I have found of doing it (no-one says anything!)
- It’s important you know of my physical strength.
But before we go judging these outcast individuals, there are two more points which could explain both extremes of the poor palm grapple.
Perhaps it’s just beyond some people’s capacity to co-ordinate their limbs. I’m serious. If you break it down into parts, the handshake is a fairly complex manoeuvre. First you have to get the height right, otherwise you end up jousting someone in the groin. Not recommended for a good first impression. Then you have to align hands perfectly and clasp at just the right moment. If not you get a fist inside a hand and an immediate urge to play rock, paper, scissors. Next you must get the grip right. And then you have to move up and down, in sync with your shakee (tangent: a less frequent but equally bizarre specimen, the pumper, can loosen your joints with such crazed enthusiasm, you feel obliged to sustain it ’til he sees fit). Finally, you must let go at the exact same moment, all while maintaining eye contact of a not too casual or weirdly intense manner. So there’s a lot to think about here, and perhaps it just doesn’t come easy to some.
(The strange thing is, if there’s all this to get right, why do most people only fail on the clasp? I’ve had many a bad handshake, but no one has ever cupped my hand perfectly and just held it in a motionless clinch. Maybe the playground skill (of what is essentially, holding hands) goes right out the window as they concentrate desperately on mastering direction and speed.)
And so we come to the final possibility, which is of course relativity. What’s weak for one is strong for another. One man’s carrot is another man’s cheese. The perceived over-compensation of the crusher extraordinaire could simply be wondering why he always gets the wet fish. And the poor bestower of the lazy wrist wriggle may simply be wondering why everyone he meets tries to hurt him before “hello”.
Which of these theories do you agree with? Do you have any other ideas for explanations? Maybe you’re one of the outliers? If so, please tell us what’s going on: knowledge is understanding.