How to shake hands

13Jan09

It probably comes as little surprise that people occasionally seek me out for my advice on manners. One female acquaintance asked me to settle a debate over a point of etiquette. “Peter, how would you shake hands with a woman?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t,” I said, with the sage, mysterious air of a Zen master. “I’d wait for her to shake hands with me.”

According to Miss Manners, who is a woman and should know, in social situations, social rank determines who extends his or her hand, and, for that matter, who is introduced to whom. The handshake is a woman’s prerogative since she outranks a man. (Old-school manners may or may not have been sarcastic on this point.) Traditionally, the old outrank the young, an aristocrat outranks a commoner, a president outranks an ordinary citizen, and a human outranks a dog. The inferior is presented to the superior, and then waits for the superior to initiate the handshake, either by extending his or her own hand or, in the case of a human-canine handshake, issuing a command.

In the business world, who initiates the handshake is still dictated by rank, but it’s slightly different. A woman and a man are presumed to be of equal rank, although not necessarily for the purposes of rewarding equal work with equal pay. So too are the young and the old. The rank that counts is your respective positions on the corporate ladder. Keep in mind that if you’re in a job interview, you’re not even on the ladder yet, so exercise caution. Extending your hand while unemployed may result in social awkwardness, though on the positive side, it may also result in spare change.

Remember, however, that no matter who offers the handshake, whether or not it breaches etiquette, it is a major insult not to accept it. Snubbing a handshake is reserved only for an enemy, someone you want to become your enemy, or someone you didn’t see. It is also poor etiquette to extend a hand purely for the purposes of maximizing leverage and impact while throwing a sucker punch, or for the purposes of pulling it away at the last second, running it through one’s hair, and saying, “Too slow!” It is, however, permissible to extend a hand to execute a surprise judo flip, but only above the rank of first-degree black belt.

When the handshake has been offered and accepted, clasp the other person’s hand with a firm but not bonecrushing grip, unless you are being introduced to former heavyweight boxing champion James “Bonecrusher” Smith, in which case, feel free to give as good as you get. Consider, however, that as former heavyweight champion, “Bonecrusher” Smith almost certainly socially outranks you. Did you offer your hand first, thus offending him? If so, prepare for your beating. If, on the other hand, you are being introduced to “Bonecrusher” Smith in the ring, simply tap gloves, then return to your corner and prepare for your beating.

Pump firmly twice to shake loose any daggers hidden in the sleeve of the other person’s tunic, although if any do fall out, it is polite to ignore them. If he or she attempts to pump thrice or to execute a complicated series of maneuvers, fix your partner with a steely glare that makes it clear you will brook no nonsense. If you are a Freemason, wait for the secret signal; you will know it when you feel it. If you are shaking hands with a local in Thailand who wishes to initiate sexual relations with you, he will stroke your palm with his middle finger in a gross way. In either case, give the appropriate countersign. In the former case, the countersign is to assume control of world governments and banking; in the latter, it is the commencement of sexual relations.

As for hand position, when women shake hands with each other, and when men shake hands with each other, each hand is presented perpendicular to the ground. In a business situation, women and men are presumed equals, so this is also the method employed. For the most part, this perpendicular grip is used irrespective of age and social or business rank. Once, however, I was shaking hands with my boss and noticed him using a slight palms-down position, which subtly asserted his authority. Of course I called him out on this, which blatantly undermined his authority.

In a social situation, the perpendicular grip may be used between men and women. However, the old-school way of shaking a woman’s hand thus proffered would be for the man to lightly but firmly grasp it by the fingers as one would if one were to kiss the hand. The woman’s hand is on top because this is the dominant position, and she has a higher social rank. However, one should remember that one must be very suave, very European, very famous, or, optimally, all of the above to actually pull off kissing the hand without giving a sleazy impression. If you can pull off wearing a pencil moustache or a beret, go for it; otherwise, it is a move safest avoided.

For example, I was once in a small group of people at a party, talking to a pretty girl, when a hipster showed up. Some of the people there knew him, though he didn’t know the girl. He took her extended hand and kissed it. As stated, it’s a rare man who can pull that move off, but even rarer is the guy who’s going to get away with trying it out on a pretty girl I’m talking to. So, when he then turned to me and extended his hand, I took it, but then raised the back of my hand near his lips and waited expectantly. He paused, but had little recourse other than to kiss it as well.

This is infallible social jiu jitsu because, according to Miss Manners, “A gentleman must, in these circumstances, take what is offered. If it is a hand, shake it. If it is a cheek, kiss it. If it is a pair of lips, kiss it. If it keeps reappearing, it must be rekissed.” As many of you no doubt were, I was raised to believe that kissing is sinful. Yet, as unnerving as it may be to receive a kiss-kiss-dahling greeting in lieu of a handshake—particularly from women you don’t know well—when in Rome, you must do as the Romans do.

Or, as was my situation last spring, when in Hong Kong, do what the Hong Kongese do. Or do what the “Hong Kongers” or “Hong Kong people” do; the term appears to be a matter of debate. At any rate, it was actually the expatriates who presented the quandary (or, rather, the kissy faces). Not wanting to commit a faux pas, I gamely returned the double cheek-kiss. As it later transpired, I committed a faux pas anyway by actually smooching each cheek wetly instead of just air-kissing. They were as taken aback as I was. Fortunately, this put us on an equal level of social awkwardness.

Another increasingly common alternative to the traditional handshake that may cause social awkwardness is the so-called fist bump, also known as the terrorist fist jab. This is best left to germaphobes, athletes in the employ of the National Basketball Association, and, of course, terrorists, although this last group generally reserves the fist jab for one-on-one greetings, preferring to introduce themselves in crowd situations via the detonation of an explosive vest. Unless you are one of the aforementioned persons, don’t execute this greeting with a woman, with a man, or with anyone whom you want to take you seriously as a grown-up. If knuckles are proffered for a fist bump, you may simply seize the other person’s fist with your entire hand and vigorously shake it up and down until he or she feels foolish.

On occasion, you may be introduced to the president of the United States. He may proffer his knuckles for a fist jab. This is a perilous situation. On the one hand, as mentioned above, the president of the United States traditionally socially outranks an ordinary citizen of that country. On the other hand, the fist jab is stupid. This paradox requires some reflection.

First ask yourself if you are even a citizen of the United States. If not, then the president does not outrank you. If you are a citizen of the United States, ask yourself if it is not also true that the president is elected by, and works for, the American people. If this is the case, which it is, then the president may outrank you socially, but you outrank him professionally. Now ask yourself whether the president is a woman. If the answer is no, thank God, then proceed as you deem appropriate. If the answer is yes, then you may have accidentally been transported into an alternative timeline in which Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.

If so, it is beyond my expertise to advise you on that, although I wish you the best of luck on returning to our dimension.



10 Responses to “How to shake hands”

  1. 1 Mully

    People from Hong Kong – Honkers.

  2. 2 Candace

    Not to be confused with Honkies.

  3. 3 Peter Lynn

    Speaking of honkies, I would be remiss if I didn’t link to your favorite Internet humourist Jay Pinkerton’s related thoughts on The Humiliation Potential of Shaking a Black Man’s Hand.

  4. 4 KD

    As a woman, I always feel like a goofball shaking hands. Do men get secret lessons or something when they’re boys? Are they teaching girls how to do it these days (a Title IX handshake equity thing??)

  5. 5 Gabe

    If fist is offered for bump: cover with hand and shout paper beats rock, I win, I win. Also, guys, don’t grab to early, resulting in the finger handshake, I fucking hate that.

  6. 6 Suzie hearts Toronto

    I hate limp handshakes. I find a lot of women just extend their hands and then don’t do any clasping–so I look like a bit of an ogre when I go for a firm grip. But sometimes you just have to know if there are daggers in their sleeves! I’d rather have a firm handshake than be shanked because I didn’t shake the bodkin out.

  7. 7 Mully

    Jay Pinkerton? Never heard of him. Jay Pinkerton is dead to me. I’ve been let down too many times.
    *sniff* No, it’s OK, I just have something in my eye.

  8. This is hilarious, but as a boxing fan, I gotta say James “Bonecrusher” Smith isn’t exactly the archetypal image of an invincible opponent who will necessarily deliver a beating. I believe he lost nearly 20 of his 60 or so fights.

    He is, however, the archetypal image of a bonecrusher, so it was a good pick. Also, he’d beat me into paste without question, even though he’s probably 60 years old by now. I’m just saying, other guys might not get the beating.


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