Handshake Heart Break

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.

"Nice to meet you. You revolt me."

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:

  1. I don’t like touching people.
  2. I have broken my hand.
  3. I have secret superhuman strength and therefore fear breaking your hand.
  4. I don’t like to touch anything that I haven’t personally witnessed being washed.
  5. I know this is annoying and I am in the business of annoying people deliberately.
  6. 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).
  7. 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:

  1. Touching people hard = good.
  2. I broke my hand last year, and now it works again, yay!
  3. I like hurting strangers and this is the only socially acceptable way I have found of doing it (no-one says anything!)
  4. It’s important you know of my physical strength.
The thing being, of course, is that nobody who gets their knuckles crushed is ever really thinking about any of these options. Because they can only ever think of two other words. Small and penis. And if it’s a woman who’s offering a handshake of strength we interpret it more as, “Just because I don’t have a penis does not mean that I am not equal to or better than a penis, I mean a man, I mean a mother, I mean, I’m a just a normal, strong, independent woman, some people don’t get it, but women are best, but equal, but better, does my bum look big in this?” Well, that’s what I hear anyway.

But before we go judging these outcast individuals, there are two more points which could explain both extremes of the poor palm grapple.

"Nice to meet you. My thingy is tiny."

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.

Bad handshakes: j'aime pas 


6 responses to “Handshake Heart Break

  • andrew

    Hello there,

    I fear that your voting form is slightly weak. This is a topic so close to my heart that it practically rules my entire “first impression thinking” of everyone I meet. That’s not true, women quite often escape my judgement by going for the familiar kiss on the cheek. (However this too is not totally free from judgement. Kiss the air to the side of my face with with a loud verbal interpretation of what I can only describe as a pathetic attempt at what a moron thinks kissing sounds like and be fully prepared for a swift uppercut and to cut from my life for evermore!) – I digress.

    I do not feel like the handshake is a tough skill to master. I like to think that one should always go in firm, (and yes, it is about sexual prowess!) but just like sex, shouldn’t you just read your partner and blend your style to suit? I have met plenty of, as you describe, hand crushing/small penis types. I’m not sure what they are thinking when you match their grip!! I do find myself in a quandary when met with a wet fish though. A powerful tiny penis can be dealt with, at least you know what you are dealing with… …no one wants anything sexual from a wet fish… Do they? … Hmmmm… I will have to think about this some more.

    • Denise

      I meet so many people in my job, that I get to witness many a handshake. I mostly then have to sit down with these people and spend two hours with them in a context where we are supposed to work together in a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. So I often get to see that these bad handshakers are not freaks of society, they are just people with whom I am not manually compatible (and no, you can’t blend to suit everybody, especially if they don’t meet you halfway). And I’ve met plenty of people with a perfectly good handshake who turn out to a perfectly good pain in the arse.

      Also, I don’t think ‘firm’ is universal; some like it firmer than others and some want the other person to take the lead. Are we still talking about handshakes?

      Anyway, what did you want, voting-wise?

  • Liz

    I got two words for you: fist bump. It takes a lot less effort to master and looks badass.

  • Denise

    Well if you don’t shake hands because of a germ-aversion, then the kissing thing is going to totally freak you out. But folk in France don’t seem to get ‘la bise’ wrong. Generally people don’t kiss you hard on the cheek, and well, there’s no such thing as too soft a bise – it’s completely acceptable to kiss the cheek, the air or to not even pucker up. The handshake is far more demanding.

  • Patsy

    Strong handshake, strong personality. Floppy handshake, floppy personality. What are your thoughts on the Continental greeting by kissing?

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