For some reason, I don’t seem to shake hands as often as I used to. Of course, Covid might have something to do with it, when the elbow bump appeared as a means to limiting the spread of the infection but, even before the pandemic I am sure that my handshaking encounters had already begun to be on the wane.
For a gesture, which should be essentially friendly, I have always found shaking hands a slightly fraught experience. It comes with a certain amount of uncertainty attached to it. What will the other person’s handshake be like? Hard? Soft? Damp? Limp? And then how does that handshake translate regarding the other person’s feeling towards you? Equally, how does your own handshake feel to them? It is not something that you can know about yourself. When you might believe that you are the possessor of a firm, confident handshake, to the recipient it might be coming across like a wet fish. So, what do you do? Overcompensate, only to deliver a vice-like grip, which crushes fingers and friendship in equal measure?
What got me considering the handshake was a recent reading of the detective novel The Case of the Famished Parson by George Bellairs (John Gifford, 1949). Goodness, they did a lot of handshaking back then. I suppose it is inevitable that the story of a police investigation involves a fair degree of meetings and introductions––between suspects; witnesses; colleagues––but it is rare that I have encountered quite so many descriptions of each handshake so meticulously enumerated: “The hand he offered was soft and dry and as you squeezed it gently there was no bone resistance.” (p. 45); “His right hand still felt cold after Wentworth’s icy grip.” (p. 46); “The first thing you noticed about him was his hands. Large, white, eloquent and unctuous. They shook hands.” (p. 49); “Shearwater extended a large, white, dry hand with little or no grip in it.” (p. 50); “The psychiatrist extended a podgy, well-kept hand. Cromwell took and shook it. It was like gripping a pneumatic glove.” (p. 115).
Could the analysis of a handshake lead to the unmasking of a murderer? Is it as convincing a piece of evidence as a psychological report or a DNA sample? If nothing else, it is bound to lead to either prejudice or favour. When I think back to the numerous handshakes I have received during my lifetime, have I not made instinctive judgements based solely on that briefest of physical encounters?
As I was to discover by reading on to the end of The Case of the Famished Parson, one of the handshakes described above was that of the murderer. Could I have guessed as much by the description of the handshake alone? I am not so sure; all the handshakes described by George Bellairs sound pretty unpleasant; I think I would have been unfavourably prejudiced to have received any one of them.
Handshaking is an etiquette minefield. Perhaps it is no wonder that it appears to be in decline; the elbow bump offers less opportunity for nuance. Although… Bony, lunging, aggressive… perhaps a similar dilemma still applies?
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow prefers to avoid any intimate human contact.
Fergus Longfellow is the author of a book with a very long title.