When I started out in PR, one of the first things I was told was the importance of the handshake. Well that plus the importance of not bad-mouthing a client until you leave the building. Unfortunately, a lesson in hindsight. Handshakes were very important for a girl they said — a firm and confident grasp with 2-3 good pumps would always please. Men especially.
So I shook my way through ten years of schmoozy parties, meet and greets, interviews and business trips. Shaking was strictly a 9-5pm activity, or in my case a 9-10pm activity, if you allow for pub time. No-one I know in England shakes hands socially, when we meet people (usually in the pub) we nod our head slightly, make fleeting eye contact and go ‘alright. Then there’s a period of social adjustment as the person tries to slip into the conversation without drawing too much attention to themselves. This always worked fine for me, until I moved here.
Being introduced to an American is a full-on sensory experience.
For a start, they’re nearly always taller than me, men and women, which brings out the small dog mentality in me and I immediately feel hostile — or hostel as I now have to say in order to be comprehended. Their towering form closes in, they flash their Colgate ring of confidence smile, extend their arm, grab my hand and squeeze. All the while exclaiming their absolute delight at meeting me, as though I’m some returning species long thought to be extinct. Occasionally, I’ll get the two-hander, the sandwich of all handshakes. This is generally a male to female shake and always feels a little uncomfortable.
I am becoming more used to shaking hands in non-business settings and I can even make eye contact, though I can’t hold it anywhere near as long as most Americans I meet, thereby revealing myself as a shifty foreigner. I can also do the auto-pilot ‘hi, how are you, nice to meet you’ greeting, but haven’t mastered the remembering their name thing. There must be some standard text that all Americans read on how to remember a person’s name. I know part of the trickery is to immediately repeat the name back:
Hi, I’m Maggie
Nice to meet you MAGGIE
So, MAGGIE, what brings you to Austin
And so on —-
Whenever I try this, it’s with someone who either has an incredibly strong Texas accent or a stupid name. It’s like chinese whispers, they say one thing, I repeat another, I get corrected, everyone laughs. So now, a first meeting gets my standard ‘hi, how are you’ and all subsequent greetings are of the ‘hey you/hey girl’ variety. Being known for this kind of casual approach also comes in handy when you see someone that you know you know, but can’t remember where from or their name. Hey you! you can say with confidence.
Of course this can lead to trouble if you have to introduce one friend to another. ‘Hi, this is —-‘. At this point I rely on the aforementioned American traits and hope they’ll make mutual introductions. I never attempt those party introductions that try to establish mutual ground between the two people.
‘Dorothy, meet my friend Alberta.
‘Dorothy spears wild animals and recently bagged a llama’
‘Alberta is a life member of PETA who lives with two black bears and an Arctic penguin’
‘You two have a lot to talk about. Must dash’
My biggest dilemma now, you ask. Well when you’ve already been introduced to someone, do you shake each new time you see them. What’s the etiquette. I watch guys — it passes the time — and they seem to shake hands each time they meet, even if the last time was the night before. In my case I manage to create these uncomfortable pauses when I feel like someone might try and shake but I don’t quite gauge the moment right and then everything feels all weird and vortexy. So I feel guilty and try to make non-verbal amends by acting like I never intended to shake because what I actually wanted to do was to touch their arm or hug them. This makes them feel like this is my preferred form of communication, thus leading to a whole new set of awkward moments the next time we meet.
My other fear is when someone tries to high five me. I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination and can never do the full palm slap, I tend to catch the end of the hand which gives more of a ..phfff sound than a confident clap. Please don’t then say ‘lets try that again.’ My second attempt at anything is rarely better than my first. Chances are you’ve witnessed the best I can offer.
So please don’t be offended by my shakeless attitude. I’ll try and read your body signals if you’ll read mine. One final thing. If you meet me and Erik together, in any setting, don’t dare to shake his hand and not mine. That’s shakeism and I will sue.