Never Met a Stranger: Losing our grip



By T.W. Burger

I’m too lazy to research the origin of the handshake. I have read about it somewhere before; the tradition arose as a means to show that neither of the two parties was carrying a weapon.

Seems reasonable though, given some of the people I have dealt with here and there, maybe shaking both hands would be advisable.

It’s amusing, today, thinking about battle-axe-wielding warriors cautiously greeting one another while sitting at a Rotary luncheon or a Chamber of Commerce mixer, but it’s the symbolism that matters, one has to suppose.

The custom has certainly lost a lot of its oomph in its later years.

For one thing, I doubt many of us are seriously looking for weapons when we are glad-handing our way around the conference room at the local Holiday Inn. By-and-large, we’re a lot less interesting than we were a few hundred years back. Not that that’s a bad thing. I guess it depends on how interesting the speaker is.

To be honest, handshaking as a practice has lost a lot of its pizazz in recent decades. My dad, in his efforts to instruct me in the art of being a man in the last half of the 20 th century, had a pretty good handle on some of the etiquette. Always make eye-contact, he said, and have a firm grip. Otherwise, the other guy – somehow women did not enter this instruction process – would not think you trustworthy.

Of course, one can go to the extreme. Somewhere in the late 80s I did an interview with an editor of Izvestia, the big newspaper from the former Soviet Union.

He was also supposed to be a KGB operative.

We shook hands. My grip was firm. His was firmer. I increased my squeeze. He increased his. I swear I heard our cluster of knuckles grinding together. The contest went on for a stupidly long time before somebody from our mutual host laughingly broke it up to introduce us to others in the room.

My hand hurt for days. I hope his did. I have no idea what it was all about. Our little competition broke the ice and we had a good interview. I had to ask him, of course, about the KGB thing. He laughed harder than was necessary.

I liked him.

Most handshakes these days are anemic mockeries of the real thing. Eye contact is mostly missing, and, frankly, most grips make me feel as though I have just picked up a dead fish. They give me the heebie-jeebies.They say that with the advent of the corona virus, a lot of human traditions, like shaking hands and hugging, could become relegated to the realm of quaint and slightly creepy traditions performed by our primitive forebears.

Maybe it’s just as well. I’ve picked up enough dead fish.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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