Monday, October 16, 2006

Shaky Ground

I know a man who was taught to do a proper handshake by his uncle. That sounds like a very good use of the extended family to me. Some children only get ‘uncles’ who give them a fiver and tell them to piss off for an hour. As the recipient of many an insipid paw rattle over the years, I think the custom of teaching proper handshaking should be revived. We are all so nervous about conducting any sort of business with strangers, it can only be beneficial to find out if they have sweaty hands and can therefore not be trusted before they skim your credit card or run off with your partner. You can then say, ‘I knew it, I knew it’, over and over to compensate for your loss.

Handshaking as a greeting originated as a good will gesture to demonstrate you were not holding a weapon which is why people shook with their right hands. Left handed swordsmen had a definite advantage there for a while. It does seem like the most equal of greetings. There is nothing reverential or subjugating about it. I’ve been to Japan a few times and the bowing gets to you after a while, not to mention the business cards and the order in which you have to do things. It can make you very flustered and if you forget to keep changing slippers every time you go to a different room, you can cause deep offence.

I’m also a bit uneasy about overtly intimate salutations. In some countries people rush up to you with outstretched arms and then swing back and forth between your cheeks with multiple kisses, each punctuated with a loud ‘mmmwwwwhhhaaaa’. That can be extremely disturbing, especially if they’ve just eaten a lot of garlic, or you have. If you both have, it’s not so much of an issue.

A few years ago I was on a committee in Hackney that was hosting a gala event for East End businesswomen. The purpose of the event was to encourage an entrepreneurial culture, act as a networking opportunity and boost confidence. The mayor at the time was a religious man who didn’t shake hands with women and it was proposed that he act as guest of honour. I pointed out that if we were aiming to encourage businesswomen to feel included then snubbing them at the front door was probably not the best way to start. Nobody thought that detail was very important at the time but there did seem to be a lot of comfort canapé eating going on.

People don’t understand the concept of greetings anymore. If you are in a shop and you stand in front of a counter clutching something that still belongs to the shop in one hand and a credit card or bank note in the other, the people behind the counter take that as a cue to start talking to each other. If you continue to stand there, eventually one of them will turn to you, make a hurrumphing sound and say ‘yes?’ That’s very interesting because it’s the only time the word yes is ever used as a question. On every other occasion it is the answer to a question.

It’s a shame we can’t shake hands in shops. It might serve as a bit of an icebreaker. You always used to shake hands with your bank manager who usually had a very good handshake. It’s more difficult to do that with a hole in the wall. I once put my hand into the ‘mouth of truth’ in Rome. It didn’t get bitten off or shaken but neither did it give me a credit balance.

The handshaking etiquette in restaurants is very difficult to fathom. You should never shake hands with the waiters. They are usually carrying lots of plates and/or glasses or trying to write something anyway so it’s not so practical. If it’s a posh restaurant, the maître d’hôtel will sometimes want to shake hands with you as will the chef, unless it’s Gordon Ramsay in which case he will come after you with a meat cleaver for mispronouncing your entrée.

Occasionally people will want to shake hands with you when you’re not really prepared for it, like when you’ve just eaten fish and chips with your fingers or are carrying your old computer to a recycle point. Mostly though, handshaking is a lost art. It is being ably carried on by dog owners who will get their dog to shake hands with you just before it tries to fornicate with your leg. It’s only right to formally introduce you in those circumstances.

Since November last year, all applicants for British citizenship have to take an extensive test to prove they are familiar with important matters of etiquette, like what you should do if you accidentally spill someone’s pint in the pub. Some of the questions are very easy indeed, e.g. ‘Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken? Answer – on the BBC. But there are some toughies as well, e.g. ‘Do people tend to live in the cities or in the country? I’d say that sort of depends on how many times they’ve been mugged or whether their teenagers have maxed out on ASBOs.

The test doesn’t ask any questions about handshaking which is a shame, but indicative of how Britain is changing. Perhaps uncles who know how to do it are a dying breed. I think there might still be a question on the dog licence application form though.

No comments: