Reprinted from November 1997
When you think of a shaker, what comes to mind? Is it the little thing that sits on the dining room table which dispenses something that runs up your blood pressure? Is it some religious group from yesteryear? Do you perhaps think of a Middle Easterner with a title?
The dictionary give lots of definitions of the word including to rid ones self of; to clasp hands in a greeting; to annoy. Well now, this latter definition is the one I have in mind. Somehow in our society it came to be a custom to grasp one’s right hand with a firm clasp and pump it up and down vigorously.
I used to think this was great until I got older and arthritis and stiffness set in. Now when some friendly person gets a hold of my hand I almost always flinch or wish I could.
Someone suggested I should carry a pencil around like Bob Dole. Others have suggested I tuck the thumb under to thwart the shaker’s grasp. The truth is, nothing works.
I have even become paranoid about this. A few weeks ago some customer wanted to shake hands with me and I withdrew, refusing. He look puzzled and then produced something for me to look at and I apologized saying I had a cold and hadn’t wanted to contaminate him. The truth is I wish everyone was so considerate. I can’t tell you how many colds I’ve sneezed through over a lifetime which have likely been brought on by someone’s affectionate hand shake.
Many years ago, I saw my elders shun handshakes. I wondered why, and now I know. I can’t think when things went from wanting to hug me to shaking my hand, but they definitely went. I am sure I speak for hundreds of older American’s and probably a lot of younger ones who would like things better if the hand shakers turned to the spoken word rather than bodily pumping up your hand in a painful expression of goodwill.
I have read that this habit came about because men once used swords and pumping each other’s hand in a gesture apparently was meant to assure one could not pull his sword and thrust it through the opposite party’s heart. It doesn’t matter what the original idea of this was anyway, the pain is the same.
When someone wants to shake hands, I flinch by reflex. People must think I don’t like them. I almost always wonder if they have a cold or worse. Then there are the dwaddlers who shake and then linger with your hand in theirs. I am anticipating a second crunch which may or may not come. All during this interval, I am thinking about the pain I have experienced or anticipate rather than whatever message is pouring out of the mouth.
People often teach children to shake hands. Now there’s one! Who knows where little children have had their hands! There are those who shake, who have damp hands, there are cold hands, warm hands, suggestive hands, etc. Now I carry a little bottle of disinfectant in my purse to swish on my hands should I be trapped in a compromising shake I did not anticipate.
There is one restaurant I go to where the host is always shaking someone’s hand. If he misses you at the door, he will follow you to the table and pump your hand enthusiastically. I keep thinking he has been shaking hands all evening and I’m #36.
What is really troubling is that all hand shakers mean well and perceive shaking as good manners. I long for the olden days when I did not flinch with pain anticipating every hand shake coming my way.
What happened to the day of curtsy? Maybe fellows could replace the handshake with a curtsy. Well, maybe not.
There are the extended shakers too. They run their left hand across your should and while holding your right hand and firmly encircle your neck and draw you to them. Well, I don’t have this problem so much now that I’ve passed 60, but there are memories.
If a person is very adept at this he can cause pain in the right hand and further pain in the shoulder if the person has arthritis. Fortunately I’ve never had this problem, but I’ve heard it in powder rooms around the globe.
Most shakers do not mean to injure you. We have had a few who would accept your extended hand and in a mean spirited expression of strength crush down on it. These people need a lesson in being civil and polite. They should try this on Bruce Lee or someone.