Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Failure to Address the Refusal to Shake Hands

The gesture of shaking hands has been apart of Western culture for ages. I offer one link in particular as the post not only cites the existence of a 5th century Greek stele portraying two soldiers clasping hands, but also has a picture of the stele.

There are a number of origins attributed to handshake. The most common one, and in my opinion one that is very likely accurate, is that two individuals could offer the normal arms-bearings hands to indicate that neither was armed. Today we also ensure that our tableware is place down so that points/tines or sharp edges do not face others.

There have also been several versions or methods for the actual performance of the handshake. One commonly attributed to the Romans was the actual clasping of the wrists. Some societies would utilize two hands to indicate a greater sense of closeness, hospitality, or camaraderie.

The handshake today has many nuances. Too light is perceived as being wishy-washy or disinterested, too strong as possibly being overly gregarious or bullying. Men will try to make sure that neither one does it with too much or too little force and will generally ensure that the hand of the other and not the fingers get clasped. A woman's hand should be held lightly, briefly, and sort of with the pads of the fingers and thumbs rather than with a full hand-clasp. Close-knit groups such as sports teams or military groups will tend to develop their own variations of the handshake. All of these are meant to convey sense of greeting, manners, camaraderie, sincerity, appreciation, and acceptance. Perhaps the most important meaning that can be communicated by the handshake is an agreement.  The shaking of hands to indicate the agreeing to terms or forgiving/forgetting of slights/insults has been an inherent part of our culture for a very long time. Few things can make the community feel more reassured than to observe to people shaking hands after an apology.

A terribly bad portent for the direction in which our society/culture is heading is not only the trend towards refusing to shake hands but the utter failure to address this issue with anything but weak excuses. Many will shamelessly speak in support of the person who has decided that his concern with getting slightly dirty hands is enough to override a timeless and almost hallowed part of our culture. Even the Japanese have had no problem adopting the handshake when meeting Westerners. In fact, when I was in Japan and Korea, it was not uncommon when greeting a person for both of us to engage in a modified bow/handshake act that was surprisingly easy to perform. The arrival of the "me" subculture allows some to decide that one is not part of a general culture, but an individual that is free to pick and choose what he or she will accept  in the spectrum of manners and politeness.

An Internet search on hand-shaking will bring up one website after another dedicated to defending, promoting, or advising people to either stop shaking hands or how to "politely" [sic] “decline” shaking hands. It is almost as if they truly believe that it is possible to do this without being rude. The problem is that the very act of refusing this gesture is inherently rude in Western culture. When I was in Japan, I NEVER counted my change in front of the cashier because doing so conveys a sense of distrust or suspicion of having been cheated. Counting change in front of a cashier may result in the firing of the employee if it is witnessed by a supervisor. One counts his change outside and reenters the store if he believes that a mistake had occurred.

Of course those who promote this awful type of behavior are probably not the types who hold that there is much good in Western culture in the first place. I don’t think that a scientific survey has been or will be done on this topic, but if there were to be one I would be willing to place a friendly wager that a disproportionate amount of those who hold that it is OK to refuse have Leftist political leanings, would avoid military service like the plague, and support the idea of a government that has extremely broad authority to control every aspect of society.

The very act of refusing to shake hands creates an awkward, hurtful, embarrassed response for the greeter. It is unbelievable that one can pretend to be under the impression that saying "I'm sorry, I don’t shake hands." is going to reduce any way the rudeness of his actions. What is supposed to come next - "I’m sorry that you feel offended"? That is sort of like walking away without a response from a verbal greeting and saying that you are sorry that the other feels like he is being ignored.

What to do? Well, ignoring it is exactly what they want you to do. The more people get away with such rudeness without correction, the more others will feel that it is OK to get on this boat. A refused handshake must be met with some form of admonishment just as for a loud cell phone conversation in a public yet quiet area. I prefer the "That was an extraordinarily rude act" approach. A person who chooses a more tactful approach may state that refusing handshaking creates an environment of awkwardness, confusion, etc. Can you imagine a room where even ten percent of the people refused to shake hands? It would be utter confusion and likely result in everyone ceasing the shaking of hands. - Wait a minute! That’s what they want! A society where everyone not only hides from real problems in the world but one where we all just offer weak nods at each other open meetings. It sounds like society out of George Orwell's 1984 where social contact between others is almost nonexistent.

I will not allow that this is simply an issue of hygiene and microbes. I find avoiding eating, rubbing my eyes, and touching my lips or nose until I have washed my hands to be a very easy thing to do. I follow this practice after I touch the floor to pick something up, pat a dog, touch the bottoms of shoes, touch raw food, and for every other act that can transfer dirt and microbes to my hands. If the Flu is going around then of course we all can refrain from shaking hands for a couple of weeks. For the rest of the year, let's not pretend to think that microbes have changed so much over time that touching another's hands is some sort of equivalent to having unprotected sex with a needle-using heroin addict.

Those who refuse to shake hands are only throwing out the claim of fear/concern of microbes to cover up their faults. Our bizarre fear of judging others or being accused of intolerance just feeds into what they what for all of us. Please consider making a stand here. We lose so much when we drop gestures, acts, or beliefs that are a part of what made us the way we are.

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