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Handshake Day and Larry’s Monster-Busting Handshakes (T)

The third Thursday of June is Handshake Day, a day of greater note since the pandemic has endangered this traditional greeting. Spending the year bumbling through elbow bumps or other socially-distanced non- or low-contact gestures has made me not only reflect on the frequency with which we use contact gestures but also how much I’ve taken for granted the handshake as an easy social code.

I was lucky enough to learn about handshakes as a kid. But for those who need to learn handshaking as an adult, the simple act of shaking hands can be as painful as learning the correct angle of a Japanese bow. At first, adult handshake learners read intriguing popular lore, about how a handshake was first used to show that the shaking hand was free of weapons. By shaking hands up and down, handshakers could further prove that they had nothing up their sleeves. As business handshake learners advance, they could then go on to learn more theory such as Manchester University’s Geoffrey Beattie’s 12-variable formula for the perfect handshake:

PH = √ (e2 + ve2)(d2) + (cg + dr)2 + π{(42)(42)}2 + (vi + t + te)2 + {(42)(42)}2 (e) is eye contact (1=none; 5=direct) 5; (ve) is verbal greeting (1=totally inappropriate; 5=totally appropriate) 5; (d) is Duchenne smile – smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset (1=totally non-Duchenne smile (false smile); 5=totally Duchenne) 5; (cg) is completeness of grip (1=very incomplete; 5=full) 5; (dr) is dryness of hand (1=damp; 5=dry) 4; (s) is strength (1= weak; 5=strong) 3; (p) is position of hand (1=back towards own body; 5=other person’s bodily zone) 3; (vi) is vigour (1=too low/too high; 5=mid) 3; (t) is temperature of hands (1=too cold/too hot; 5=mid) 3; (te) is texture of hands (5=mid; 1=too rough/too smooth) 3; (c) is control (1=low; 5=high) 3; (du) is duration (1= brief; 5=long) 3.*

But nothing beats learning cultural gestures firsthand, and I was able to learn about handshakes from Larry the doorman in New York City. Larry taught me not just about how to shake hands but also what shaking hands meant when every morning without fail he’d greet my mother and her two daughters with a handshake, addressing each of us separately, even on the days following downpours when the Manhattan worms were out on the pavement. On those days, Larry would take my mother’s empty coat sleeve slung over her shoulders 60’s-style, and speak into it as if it were a loud speaker.

“I trust you’ll keep your mother safe from the worms today,” he’d say, looking at me and shaking the coat sleeve up and down.

If Larry’s handshake was about trust it was a winner every time. I’d emerge from behind my mother’s coat, pinched face dissolved and giggling. At five, I was convinced that a good handshake reduced the size of monster worms on Manhattan pavements, and now, I still think that a really good handshake should reduce the size of Tremor worms. Thanks Larry and may monster-busting trust-building handshakes make a post-pandemic comeback.

*Al-Shamahi, Ella. 2021. The Handshake: A gripping history. London: Profile, 79-80.

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