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On Handshakes

May 14, 2009

So I’ve got this hand coming at me. It’s got white skin, attached to a man in a nice suit. This seems like a “professional” situation. I guess I should go for the “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake” with a smile and some eye contact. He responds in kind. Looks like I made the right choice – proceed to conversation.

I’ve been lax on the writing lately. The conference is past. My brother is married. Interview processes have progressed past my involvement. Time for some “me” time. I’ve been meaning to catch up on the posts – have a lot of topics in mind. But, instead, here I am – thinking about handshakes.

Why am I thinking about that? Because I just had an interesting day. It started at school, where I had a guest in one of my classes (a hip-hop/spoken word friendly acquaintance of mine). Then my friend who helps out in my Music Production class. Had my performance evaluation (the last one) with my boss, in which we talked about cultural competency issues at work. Then met some folks applying for the position I’m leaving behind. Ended with our big school Art Show (in conjunction with our high school) where I found myself mingling with my students, ex-students, parents, and colleagues from various other programs within my organization. And, in all of that, there were a lot of handshakes.

But – more importantly – there were a lot of different kinds of handshakes.

Now, for some people, there may be only a few kinds of handshakes – but not for me (and probably not for most people). Nope. For me, there are so many different handshakes in my repertoire, and they are all part of my code-switching toolkit.*

So let’s run through them, in order:

So for my “friendly-acquaintance” (a black man), I went for the “Homie Hug.” That’s when you clasp hands for the pull-in into a sort of one-armed embrace (with your clasped hands between each other’s chests). For me, it’s a standard for when I run into men of color with whom I’m on good terms, but don’t see consistently.

Next, for my co-teaching friend (also a black man, also a hip-hop man), we’ve got the “Loose-Slide-and-Snap.” This is when we’re reaching like a handshake, but basically just slap a light sideways “five,” then slide hands free, ending with a snap. With most folks, I usually end this with a sort of “hand-grasp,” but he always does the snap. Maybe it’s an LA thing.

My boss is a white woman. No handshakes there. We’re on too good terms for that (and see each other too much). But we don’t hug, either. Just friendly smiles as I sit down in her office.

For the incoming applicants, it’s formal “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake” all the way. Both men (one black, one white). That’s the “professional” thing to do. Period.

With my students, if we bother hand-shaking, it’s usually the “Loose-Slide-to-Grasp.” Starts like the “Loose-Slide-and-Snap,” but ends with a firm arm-wrestling-type grasp instead of the snap. That’s for the guys, at least. With the girls, it’s more awkward. Because you don’t shake hands with the girls. But when they go for the hug, I’m always semi-uncomfortable, because I don’t want to cross boundaries. But I don’t want to push away, either. So I usually turn it into the “Quick-One-Armed-Side-Hug.” Using that one arm to go around the shoulders, buddy-style, with little prolonged contact.**

With the parents, it’s usually the “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake,” especially with the men. With women, I’ll do the “Loose-Grasp” without the shake and toning down the eye contact.

With colleagues, it’s a smorgasbord. A lot of hugs with the women – the brotherly “Wide-Smile-and-Embrace” where I start with arms out wide with a smile in greeting, with a warm – but quick – around-the-shoulders embrace. A lot of “Loose-Slide-to-Grasps” for the gentlemen. But this is the category that’s trickiest. Because sometimes I go for the “Loose-Slide-and-Grasp,” but the other guy is going for the “Homie-Hug” or the “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake,” and it just feels all wrong. Or the women aren’t looking for a hug, so we do an awkward “Pull-Back-from-Hug-to-Wave” which always looks ridiculous. Sometimes the “Loose-Slide-and-Grasp” ends with a “Homie Hug” or maybe a fist-pound. Maybe we waive all the handshakes and just go for a fist-pound. Or maybe it gets even more elaborate with a bunch of different handshakes rolled into one with a top-to-bottom fist-pound and then a knuckle-to-knuckle fist-pound as a clincher. Or something else, entirely.

Generally, it’s more the category of hand-shaker that determines which style I use, but race does factor in it. I’m definitely more likely to use the “Loose-Slide-to-Grasp” with other men of color. I don’t know if I ever do the “Homie-Hug” with white guys. If I’m on a friendly level with men of color, I very seldom use the “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake,” whereas I use it often with friendly-acquaintance white guys. Fist-pounds of all types are almost solely for men of color, except for a few hip-hop-related white acquaintances.

Regarding the women, it doesn’t seem to vary as much. If I know them well, hugs all around. If we’re more on acquaintance level, I’m a little more likely to “Wide-Smile-and-Embrace” with white women than women of color, but not by a lot (I’m careful with my hugs). Mostly, it’s situational. But I just don’t shake hands (almost never) with women I know already.

So – just like that – a whole post devoted to the different types of handshakes/greetings I used in one day of my life. And, obviously, the thought-processes behind it all are rarely so conscious – it usually all happens split-second – but it’s interesting to break down. Seems kind of crazy, on the surface, but it really does make a difference on a relationship level. If I just stuck to the “Firm-Grasp-and-Shake” all the time, it would honestly change my relationships to certain people, especially the perceptions upon first meetings.

And that’s kind of scary, when you really think about it. Because, if so much can go into a handshake, with no words spoken, how much goes into how we speak to each other, and what we say? How much can go wrong or be misinterpreted?

It puts into perspective how much of a miracle it is that things go as well as they generally do in this world. When so much can go into a handshake – a gesture of greeting and peace – what can go into a conversation?

Sometimes – too much. And that’s where successful code-switching and cultural competency come to the fore. When you can have a whole repertoire of ways of interacting (conscious or otherwise) to put people at ease, and to keep yourself at ease around different people, it can make all the difference in the world.

In fact – it does.

* I’ve talked about “code-switching” in the past. But – in short – it’s the ability to adapt to different cultural ways of being on the fly to be comfortable – and make others comfortable – socially.

** For a lot of reasons, I’m paranoid about wrong impressions and contact with students. A major reason is that many of them have had traumatic experiences in the past that make it difficult for them to know appropriate boundaries with adults (especially males), and I do all I can to help them learn and understand those boundaries (and to feel safe).

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5 comments

  1. OK, now I feel like I need to wash my hands! It’s funny how notions of gender and masculinity/femininity play into handshaking and other physical-contact-upon-greeting constructs.


  2. Haha, Greg, I agree. I feel like men are more likely to hug me than they would other men in greeting simply because I am a woman, despite the fact that I hate hugging (and they should be aware of that if we are acquainted). Or even worse, the European “air kisses”. I think they just assume it’s the thing to do because I’m a woman, although as far as I’m concerned the less physical contact the better.

    CVT- I’m part of the I-followed-you-here-from-Racialicious group. I’ve been reading you for months now, and I enjoy the things you have to say. I relate to a lot of the identity and racial issues you talk about, not because I’m biracial, but because I’m a Third Culture Kid and that comes with its own set of baggage, but I think that overlaps with a lot of what you talk about. Thank you for taking the time to share your observations!


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