Originally published in Sneaky Magazine.
I spot him outside through the door, he’s on his phone. That’s a good start, he’s distracted and I’m in the middle of a conversation already. I probably won’t even have to say hello. My inner anti-socialite’s anxiety starts to recede, another potentially awkward and useless conversation averted.
Instantly punished for my complacency, he finishes off his call and comes in directly towards me, smiling. Yep, that’s definitely eye contact. Shit…I don’t know this guy that well, he’s one of those superfood-high-on-life-long-haired-yogi types. We have no established physical greeting so I play it safe. I’m taking the standard, obvious option: the normal, everyday handshake. My default setting. Here I go, I’m going in…
He’s lifting his hand in a cupping motion. His thumb is sticking up, his hand is rising, his wrist is cocked and his opposite shoulder is tilting, he’s definitely going for the home-boy-hip-hop-bro-down-what’s-up thing. We have no existing rapport that would suggest this is a sensible option. I barely know this guy; I haven’t done anything to deserve this other than have a right hand and the audacity to eat at a café around lunchtime. I conclude that this is just terrible character profiling on his part and brace myself for the ensuing collision.
Sure enough, he sees my generic offering and realises he has to come down as I go up. Our hands start to convene awkwardly, but much like a speeding freight train slamming on the brakes, there’s momentum and laws of physics that have to be adhered to. Fingers are everywhere as his larger hand emasculates my spindly offering. I feel like David Brent as I try to smooth over this clash of limbs by improvising it into a normal handshake, but awkward chakras run deep with this one and his hand is still angled. We meet, cupped in the middle.
He’s trying to do the hand twisty thing. What the fuck? We were going OK after our bad start. He’d come down, I’d come up, and we’d met at this common ground in a half-normal shake. This is going from bad to worse. He doesn’t follow my lead and I can feel his wrist twisting and his fingers pulling back on mine. Wait a sec, hold your fucking horses, there’s no way he’s going for the finger flick. I don’t look like Snoop Dogg, or even like a hip white guy. I’m ironically wearing a Billy Ray Cyrus T-shirt and have bare-feet for fuck’s sakes. Oh god no, this is actually happening, don’t panic, act like you know what you’re doing, you’ve got this.
I’ve seen this done enough times by cool looking people to kind of know what to do so I go through the motions. He hung on a bit more than me during the click, which pulled me forward, slightly off balance, but we have finally parted ways. My hand feels like a space shuttle undocked after years of service, finally free to float through space alone in the infinite, lonely silence of the universe. I can breathe easy again, the world is back to normal, just a bit of small talk about life and how busy we are and how nice the sun is and everything will be back the way it was and we can forget this ever happened.
Houston, we have a problem.
This guy is a sucker for punishment. There is no way in hell we’re sealing this disaster with a fist bump. A stand-alone first bump with a close friend is fine, even encouraged – but a post finger-click-with-a-border-line-stranger-bump? This is a tragedy, a shameful, embarrassing, unchoreographed fiasco. He seems to think we have unfinished business. The desperate glint in his eye is saying, “I know this has gone badly and I take full responsibility, but just do me a solid and don’t leave me hanging”. I consider all my options. My fist bump or not fist bump futures are playing out simultaneously in my head. As I bounce back and forth between my options I notice people are witnessing this catastrophe.
I’ve balanced up the negative and positives and I’m going in for the first bump. I had to. There was a social obligation. I signed the contract by walking out my front door into this warzone of social niceties this morning. Our hands are about to touch for what I am praying is the last time. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The last 3 seconds of my life have felt like an eternity but God has finally walked in and granted me permission to vacate handshake purgatory.
Our knuckles meet; this is the first time a touch of man has felt so satisfying.
As the kamikaze greeter wandered off to talk about how awesome life is and impose his fascist shake regime on other unsuspecting victims, I was left to pick through the wreckage. Searching desperately for survivors in the form of dignity, I pondered the full spectrum of handshake techniques and the minefield of social situations, friendships and formalities they arbitrarily collide with. Forever left wondering if I should tilt, cup, grab, finger flick, knuckle touch, do the moonwalk, pull in for the one arm embrace or simply shake their hand; I realised that at nearly thirty I was no closer to this elusive mystery than I had been twenty years ago when bum-puffing on the handshake gateway drug of my generation: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
When implemented correctly between two consenting individuals, handshakes in all their different forms are an important cultural gesture that welcomes, bids farewell, congratulates, commiserates, displays familiarity, seals agreements, expresses gratitude and introduces the unacquainted. But ironically, the humble handshake, which is said to have originated as a gesture of peace to indicate the hand carried no weapon, has now come full circle and evolved into a weapon in its own right, leaving a trail of dispossessed hands, anxious squares and awkward handshake GIFS in its wake.