common threads #3: customary greetings

Posted: February 7, 2012 in Humorous Bits
Tags: , , , , , ,

When I first shuttled off to college handshakes suddenly turned into complicated rituals which, executed properly, might allow entry into the Club of Cool. College prep courses did nothing to prep me for this. Up to that point a handshake was straightforward. It was only initiated by adult men, men who held real jobs, jobs which never involved using a cruddy two-way speaker system or mopping floors sticky with crusted ketchup. These men had families, kids. They drove sedans and station wagons. They got haircuts every two weeks, used Mennen After Shave and drank serious drinks like Manhattans and Rob Roys. They were men of the world, men with experience. Hell, their drinks were named after metropolises and swashbucklers. As far as I knew my Yoo Hoo could have been named after the lilted “Yoohoo!” my flowery Aunt Belle tootled at us whenever we visited. A person who drinks Yoo Hoo does not initiate a handshake. Not in this country.

These men grabbed my hand and attempted to crush every bone within. All I could do was endure and try to return their enthusiasm by squeezing tighter. This sad stab at masculinity was usually met with comments like “Aren’t you a fierce little man” or a laughing “Hey Bill, this kid is trying to take me down.” I never liked hearing that second one because it inevitably meant their grip would tighten, much like the hydraulic press which crushed the Terminator. It was then I learned with some men everything is a competition, even handshakes.

On rare occasions handshakes were the complete opposite. I later learned these were referred to as shaking the hand of “a dead fish.” The dead fish’s hand was inevitably clammy with no force whatsoever behind the greeting. While the clammy part was off-putting, these men were always perfectly mannered and snazzy dressers. I suppose everything has a trade-off.

As teenagers we never shook hands with our peers. Never. God forbid there was any body contact outside the rigid confines of a sporting event. If for some reason a punch on the arm was received in greeting any chance of it being misconstrued was immediately offset by a string of expletives which fit neatly between the opening of “How” and the closing of “you?” But most times when you met a new kid the exchange was very predictable. It went exactly like this.

“Hey,” followed by a nod of the head.

“Hey,” followed by a return nod of the head.

Once that was out of the way the conversation was allowed to diverge into the only two topics anyone cared about: sports and girls. It was regimented and easy. Then I went to college and everything changed.

One of the great values of the university experience is exposure to new people from faraway places, each with different ideas about life, politics, recreational activities and most everything else, including how to greet people. “Hey” followed by “Hey”, even with appropriately timed dual head nods, was no longer sufficient. Awkward teenage insecurity had no place in an environment of advanced ideas and expanded minds, in a bubbling cauldron filled with boundless perspectives.

I remember my first off-campus party. I went with a friend who heard about it from his upperclassman brother. We ended up in a house with about 200 complete strangers. Oh sure I spotted that cute girl from my History class and a familiar face or two from the cafeteria, but essentially it was like entering a foreign country. My friend introduced me to his brother’s friend, a dude who effortlessly possessed a level of cool I could only dream about. One look at his fringe jacket, Neil Youngish brown leather hat and Buddhist prayer beads told me he was not only über cool, he must also be a central figure in a secret Masonic cult of hipness. A clove cigarette dangled from his mouth, an accent piece used to perfection. His scruffy beard struck a sublime balance between “feel my sensitivity” and “screw the man.” The sensitivity bit was clearly aimed at the ladies, but by screwing the man he established legit street cred with fellow dudes. Even though he was 4th generation American from decidedly European stock his name was Che. Never could figure that one out.

“Che, this is my friend John.”

“Hey,” I replied, nodding my head, proudly demonstrating my understanding of this ancient social ritual.

Che looked at me, then my friend. In retrospect I suppose he was assessing how long he needed to be seen with us, a couple of simpleton freshmen. The only reason he acknowledged my friend was that older brother connection. Myths surrounded Che like a sacramental cloak. He was preternaturally tuned in and active, even as a freshman, staging sit-ins across the campus to protest Wise Foods’ unfair monopoly on snack machines. And my friend’s brother was always at his side. Loyalty is an essential element of cool, so Che was committed to this playing out this exchange. He was nothing if not smooth.

He smiled. “What’s up, brother?” Then he stuck out his hand. Instantaneously I realized I had crossed over that mysterious boundary into adulthood. This was it! Someone in my general age range whose life experiences were equal to those in their…their…their 30’s for god’s sakes was greeting me with a handshake! We were colleagues, equals in a new reality! Plus, unlike all the handshakes of my youth, this one wasn’t accompanied by an overwhelming aroma of cocktail onions. I knew exactly what to do.

I thrust out my hand, grabbed his (surprisingly soft might I add) and mimicked what I learned my entire life. I began the formal shake. But Che was having none of it. He immediately wrested the lead from me, like Astaire on the dance floor, and embarked on a choreographed performance involving hands, wrists, index fingers, pinkies, thumbs and elbows, all ending with a flourish of shooting a fake pistol. I tried to follow along, but only managed to dump my plastic cup of warm beer on his jacket.

Over the years I’ve learned people greet each other in many ways, mostly cultural in nature. Some folks press noses together, others tap clenched fists. People kiss each other’s cheeks or clap their hands together three times. You’ll see salutes, deep bows and even finger snapping. That’s just on the physical side. The variety of customary verbal greetings is equally diverse and fascinating.

Looking back I know I didn’t learn as much as I should have during my time in college. But at least one essential lesson stuck: If you know you’ll be meeting someone new, someone from a different background, do your homework. Familiarize yourself on how to greet them in a manner by which they’re accustomed. Not only is it respectful, it could save you a small fortune on dry cleaning.
Learn more about The Common Threads Project.

  1. whiteladyinthehood says:

    I have a good hand-shake. Firm, not bone-crushing, non-sweaty (hopefully), direct eye-contact accompanied by a big smile. I mostly save them for males, who seem to appreciate them (alot of women seemed to be turn-offed by them). And when the little ones at work get into a scuffle, I always insist on a, “Say your sorry and then shake hands.”


  2. As a southern woman, the first thing I learned in college was to get rid of that soft female ‘dead fish’ handshake. No more delicate laying of the hand gently in someone else’s. I won’t crush your fingers, but I’ll give you a firm grip and nice eye contact. I believe I once got a job based on that alone.


  3. After 21 years of teaching, I still can’t get used to kids flinging themselves at me for a hug. I tried to substitute a high five or a fist bump and almost ended up punching a couple of kids in the face. A hand shake is just about my level of comfort, but sadly I don’t get that chance very often.


  4. People in hispanic cultures tend to greet everyone with a hug, which I like and which is much better than the way dogs greet each other. Yes, I much prefer a hug to sniffing someone’s butt.


  5. H.E. ELLIS says:

    The timing on this post is so odd because just today I was talking to a friend about how my high school age boys shake hands like grown men when they come and go. I don’t remember boys doing this when I was a teen. As for me, I do the “kiss in the air next to the cheek as to not disturb my lipstick” greeting.

    As for college, I never went. But I intend to amend that this fall so I’ll have plenty of “Gen X’er goes to college” blog posts. I’ll be sure to take yours under advisement.


  6. kayjai says:

    Nice post…we girls shake hands, but mostly a ‘hi’ and a smile goes a long way.


  7. mysterycoach says:

    The handshake. I know what you mean and I’m a woman. 🙂 Nice post !


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