There’s No Shame In Shaking Hands

Some people are huggers and some are not

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

If someone puts a light hand on my elbow then I’ll notice it. An arm stretched around my shoulder will make me think twice. Step forward and wrap yourself around me — pull me in and hug me firm — I‘ll probably wriggle out of it.

Some people are huggers and some are not. To fall into the second of these categories is not — should not — be shameful, but a preference for merely shaking hands it too often seen as some sort of repression. Maybe even a toxic one.

As a form of greeting, I always liked the handshake, mainly because it’s hard to get wrong. It relies on a little bit of timing, but essentially it’s very simple. Also, as far as physical contact goes, it’s intimate enough to be meaningful whilst also keeping the other person at a literal arms length.

In fact, it has often struck me that one of the easiest things about my growing up — as a boy — was the way a handshake could stand in for anything. Like vanilla, it was agreeably reliable.

In contrast, watching my parents greet my aunts and uncles when they’d visit, I’d see the women sometimes kiss cheeks, sometimes press their cheeks together, sometimes kiss one cheek then the other, sometimes hug, sometimes wrap their hands over one another’s, sometimes walk arm in arm. If one of my aunties approached me with her arms outstretched, I wouldn’t know how to react and would surrender to whatever she greeting she had planned.

On the other hand, my uncles only ever shook my hand. That was it. Moreover, they shook my hand in the exact same way they shook each others’. There was never any variation, no sense of hierarchy or initiation.

This what I learned. When one man meets another man, no matter what the context, they tend to do the same thing. They might be meeting for the first time or they might be old friends, the action is the same. A son greets his father, an employee meets his boss, a coach meets his players, the etiquette is unchanging.

And since I’d always found the finer details of social interaction a tad off-putting, it came as a relief to me to understand that a handshake was both the least and the most expected of me in virtually every situation I was put in. A wedding, a funeral, a birthday, the rules were always the same.

I realise now that much of what I know about tactile contact comes from the dubious rule-book of masculinity. This was brought to my attention when I overheard someone say recently: “Men refuse to hug each other because they think they’ll be called a sissy.”

This interpretation, of men’s resistance to hugging as a symptom of toxic masculinity, raised no reason objection from me. She was probably right. Some men probably do resist intimacy because they prefer to conform to traditional masculine ideals, despite themselves.

Still, the comment played on my mind for a while later. It struck a chord, I suppose, because I’ve recently noticed that some of my friends — male friends — had taken to hugging as their primary form of greeting rather than shaking hands, and that this behaviour was newly acquired.

To be sure, these buddy-hugs were of the “man-bear” order. Not a tight clasp, where two bodies appear to shrink into each other, but a method learnt from films and television where the body is enlarged and the elbows rise up, where the hug itself is swift and firm, made up of a series of back slaps and wrestling type neck-locks. In other words, a way of hugging that is distinct from, say, the way a parent hugs a child.

Even so, it has become palpable to me that the ridding of stereotypical masculine modes of behaviour has entered my friendship circle. In this way, my socialising now came with a question attached: will we hug or shake hands?

Of course, when men greet other men, shaking hands is not the only gesture: with intimacy they might expand into high-fives, they might high-shake (the “homie handshake”), they might fist-bump. In many middle-east countries and some European countries too, a kiss on either cheek is common. Apparently, in Oman it is not unusual for men to kiss one another on the nose after shaking hands (Yes, I’ve been researching). In the past, men used to tip their hat to each other. In other contexts, bowing, kneeling or saluting might all be appropriate.

Still, the handshake persists as the lingua franca of male greeting; and in the priggish English culture that I come from, it’s more or less the only thing men ever do. That’s not to say that women don’t also shake hands. Quite obviously they do, but that tends to be confined to a professional setting. Female friends, for instance, never — in my experience — shake hands. Their array of gestures is more numerous and nuanced. The subtly is appealing, but not one that I wish to have to learn.

Take greetings between women and men. Now, I believe it’s true to say that handshaking between the two sexes is far more typical now than it used to be, a change I have noticed in my lifetime.

The once commonplace scene of a woman being subject to the entitled and often slimy cheek-kisses of men — even on their first meeting — is now much rarer. In a moment in history when physical contact between men and women is under new scrutiny, this is no bad thing.

In this way, I wonder if the more mannered end of social interaction is something worth holding on to. Call me Victorian, but hand-shaking has its place. Uncluttered, unbiased, unpretentious. Cordial, safe, routine. Formal, orthodox, time-honoured. Take your pick.

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Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life. Sign up for more.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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