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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Let's Shake On It

I've mentioned in the past that I spent several years working in retail. The shop I worked in sold bath and skin care products, shampoos, and makeup and fragrances. I enjoyed learning about the products and sharing my knowledge with the new staff as well as with our customers. We had shops in a very upscale shopping center, as well as a quaint shopping district, and the busiest concourse at Denver International Airport. It was a people-watching, customer-service-loving person's paradise. 

One of the firm rules of this shop's parent company was simple but sensible: the 30 Second Rule. We made every effort to greet or acknowledge everyone who entered the shop within thirty seconds of their arrival. Customers want to feel welcome but not overwhelmed, and we struck a pretty good balance that way, I think. Personally, I think that everyone, whether they come into a store to buy or just look around, deserves to be treated with the same level of courtesy. This combination resulted in many memorable encounters with people of all ages and descriptions.

One day at the airport, I turned to say hello to a gentleman some thirty or more years my senior who had just walked into the shop. He sort of waved off my greeting, saying not to pay any attention to him, it was his wife who was shopping. I gave him my most winning smile and said that it didn't matter; I just wanted him to feel welcome and comfortable in our store. I reached out my hand to give him a firm handshake, and his face broke into a stunned but happy smile. "Wow! You've got a great shake for a girl! Can I have another one of those?" I was more than happy to give the gentleman another handshake (and one or two more before he left), and he entered the store to find his wife and tell her how about much he enjoyed his greeting. I can't remember if he and his wife bought anything. All I can remember is how pleased he was to have received a proper handshake while his wife was shopping.

I sometimes think that the giving of proper handshakes is a dying social art form, which makes me really sad. The handshake is a very profound form of greeting that goes back thousands of years, perhaps even further back in time than written language. What makes me believe that it is so profound? It was a way to show someone, whether a stranger or an acquaintance, that your hand was empty of any weapons. You can't grasp someone's hand if you are holding a weapon that can kill them. The two clasped hands were a sign of peace and potential comradeship. Two people greeting one another in very close range, with hands devoid of weapons, were giving and receiving trust. I think that is pretty profound, don't you? Humans had progressed from waving from a distance to show their weaponless hands to grasping one another's hands to show mutual goodwill.

I know that there are lots of modern variations of handshakes, but I think it's very important to know the basics. A handshake is a very simple thing, really. You extend your hand at a right angle to the floor (or ground, if outdoors) with your thumb up. You simply grasp the other person's hand for a few seconds. The webbed area between your thumb and index finger should touch the same spot on the other person's hand. It's that simple. Contrary to the name, there really isn't any shaking involved. Some people will occasionally add their other hand to make for a more warm, fuzzy gesture, but it isn't necessary. 

Since I love a proper handshake, I will admit that there are a few things that bug me about some people's handshakes. And no, I am not going to say anything about sweaty hands. It happens. If your hands tend to get clammy, try and find an unobtrusive way to blot them before shaking. If you receive a handshake that is a bit clammy, act like you didn't, please! If someone is making a kind gesture, why would you want to ruin it? And ladies...having a firm handshake doesn't make you manly. It makes you womanly. And a limp handshake doesn't make you seem like a lady, it just makes you seem timid. When a woman puts her hand out for a shake  and her palm is facing the floor, to say nothing of her barely grasping the ends of my fingers, I have to fight the urge to remind her that she is not the Pope, and I am not here to kiss her ring!

A few years ago, I spent a few minutes in one of my banking customer service training classes telling a group of people who were getting higher-level training about proper handshakes. As luck would have it, on that very day, several of them were attending a luncheon with a female Senior Vice President who was visiting our call center from another state. I was so happy when they came back from their meeting bubbling over with pride and excitement. "Katrina! Mary shook everyone's hands, and we knew exactly what to do because of you! She shook just like you told us people should shake!" Yes, they were happy to have been invited to meet the senior-most person in our banking division because of their individual achievements. But they were also excited and relieved that they had learned, in just a few moments, a social and business skill that made them look and feel like the accomplished professionals that they all were.

As far as my personal handshake style - I can be delicate enough to shake with a youngster or someone whose hands are afflicted with the pain of arthritis, and I can be firm enough to shake with a well-muscled person with a really strong grasp. For those of my readers that I have never met in person, I hope some day that I will be able to grasp your hand in friendship. Just promise me that you won't act like you want me to kiss your ring, okay? Let's shake on it!