“Look them in the eye and give them a good, firm handshake. None of that ‘wet dishrag’ stuff.” If you had this conversation with your father at some point in your younger years, welcome to the fraternity. I am not exactly sure how far back in time this goes, but when this piece of manly advice was finally passed on to me, it sounded more like a sacred oath than fatherly advice. ‘Wet dishrag’ or ‘wet noodle’ handshakes were portrayed as a sure way to assassinate your own character when being introduced to someone. I drank the koolaid and grew up as a “look them in the eye while trying to crush the bones of their hands” kind of guy. As the Summer of Love approached, something changed.
The handshake as I was taught it evolved into something else. The younger generation deemed it no longer necessary to engage in a wrist-wrestling match when shaking hands. The old fashioned hand to hand gripper shake was replaced by what we called ‘the brother handshake’. The two shaking hands met, not at the waist, but shoulder high and the palms came together at a 45 degree upward angle. It wasn’t a high five and it wasn’t a traditional handshake. The younger generation seemed to delight in finding a new way to greet each other that wasn’t your father’s handshake. The clasped hands were sometimes accompanied by a slap on the shoulder with the free hand bordering on a hug. If it was a heartfelt greeting, a little arm wrestling might ensue with the two clasped hands being tugged in opposite directions to add more feel to the brother shake.
The transition period was brutal. One had to decide upon greeting someone whether or not to go old school and use the traditional handshake or get hip and use the brother. It could make for an ackward moment if you misjudged and went for the wrong handshake. One could direct the action by making the first move, thus signalling which type of handshake to use. If one approached the prospective handshakee in a timid fashion, it would result in all manner of gesticulations until the right grip was achieved. Some gave up completely and just took to blandly waving their hand in salute.
The brother handshake is still in use but as the younger generation began aged, the more traditional handshake returned. By our tenth high school reunion, I can’t remember greeting anyone with anything but a firm, traditional handshake. When the brother handshake began to be used extensively by athletes, it kind of diluted the revolutionary power that it had in the late 1960s. Once athletes began using the brother shake, it further devolved into all kinds of strange forms that began to include strange grips, thumb locks, hand slaps, and hand bumps. Many of those bear little or no resemblance to a handshake of any kind. I kind of lose the focus on the meaning of a handshake when athletes began using strange, ritualistic handshakes that remind me of something Fred and Barney would use to get past the sergeant at arms of the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo Lodge No. 26. There may be entertainment value in a handshake that features the same amount of body motion that one achieve if they sat on an anthill or a campfire, but for me, the meaning is devalued to mere showboating. It reminds me of the old football coach telling a player who goes overboard in their TD celebration: “Next time you score, act like you have done it before.”
How about the fist bump? When did the handshake become a fist bump? Was it in reaction to the wild and crazy, sitting on an anthill gyrations that some passed off as a handshake? Was it a subtler form of the brother shake or a high five? Different sources claim that it may have started in the late 1800s or early 1900s when gloved boxers met at the center of the ring before a bout, in Jamaica where it was a casual greeting, or even as an alternative to a handshake to help curb the spread of infectious diseases. Some profess to have seen it in certain animal species. I confess that I actually started to enjoy getting a fist bump once in awhile. Not long after the fist bump started to replace the wild and crazy greetings, it also began to change. First there was the ‘fist bump followed by the explosion’ with wiggling fingers being extended upward after the bump (sometimes followed by a soft ‘boom’ from the bumper and bumpee). The the ‘shower of sparks’ was added as the waggling fingers were slowly lowered toward the floor. Just the other day, one of my students gave me ‘the snail bump’. After the regular fist bump, she flattened her hand out and slid it beneath my fist and announced ‘snail bump’. One thing is for sure: if you invent a new type of handshake, someone else is going to modify it to the point where it will eventually look much different than what you started with.
Any other crazy greetings out there? Well, there is the elbow hook: the two greeting parties hook their arms together at the elbow while trying to not punch each other in the head. Let us not forget the chest bump. The chest bump was first popularized by football players wearing helmets and pads. Seeing it performed by players in other sports with less equipment looks like a train wreck in waiting. Cartoonist Stephan Pastis has even drawn the crazy crocs in his Pearls Before Swine panels doing the chest bump. Seeing golfers do the chest bump will probably be a sign that it is on the way out, soon to be replaced by something else (although watching the most recent Masters tournament, I noticed that the brother handshake was exchanged the most frequently on the final green). High fives begat low fives. Low tens begat high tens. Elbow bumps begat elbow locks. Where will it end? Hopefully not with head butts. I recall quarterback Vinny Testaverde knocking himself out of a football game when he head butted a wall on the sideline during a game. I can’t remember if it was with or without a helmet on, but it certainly would not be a recommended form of greeting between two humans. Our brains are not protected like those mountain goat rams that crack heads in territorial standoffs.
I should back pedal here and rethink my earlier ‘welcome to the fraternity’ statement. When I was in sixth grade, spring meant we played softball on the lawn outside of Spaulding Hall at NMU. One day a bunch of girls from the dorm came out and we thought they were going to chase us off of ‘their ball field’. Instead, they challenged our neighborhood team to play them. We were so overmatched it wasn’t even funny. If we could hit the ball on the roll from home plate to the curb on Center Street opposite from my house, we thought we were the reincarnation of The Babe. A good number of the college girls we played against would hit towering fly balls that would land across Center Street in my yard. If you can recall the picture of Charlie Brown having his clothes knocked off by a line drive in the Peanuts cartoons, then you get a pretty good idea of how we felt playing those girls. This was before Title IX blew up and woman’s (not just girl’s) sports began the explosive growth in opportunities and skills that continues to this day. Those girls already had skills and loved to play ball.
What does this have to do with handshakes? Every time one of the coeds belted a home run, they all shook her hand as she crossed home plate. They also shook our hands at the end of the game. We played just about every day after school during my sixth and seventh grade year and were bummed when Northern let out for summer vacation. It all came to a screeching halt near the end of the second year when a couple of the coed’s boy friends joined in. They were not fun to play against and they didn’t shake hands at the end of the game like the girls did. Oh yes, the girls we played against used the ‘old fashioned, look them in the eye’ handshake and there were no ‘wet dishrag’ handshakes from anyone of them.
I remember years ago my buddy Mitch and I had run into an old friend. After we had a brief discussion and parted ways, Mitch said out of the blue,”Hey, that was great. None of that ‘brother stuff’ – just a good, old fashioned handshake.” Hearing Mitch say this made me realize that I had returned to my roots as a ‘look them in the eye and give them a firm handshake’ guy, just like my dad taught me. Just because it is old school does not mean that it is out of style! Be forewarned: if you meet me in a social situation and shake my hand, I am going to do the way my dad taught me.
Top Piece Video: Elvis will have to do with Shake a hand – hey, songs about hand shakes are hard to find!