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Let me shake you by the hand and lead you through my etiquette crisis

By Chris Ayres, LA Times Notebook – 03/22/2005 – 12:00am

GREETING PEOPLE isn’’t easy. In fact, the most embarrassing, fist-biting moment of my adult life involved a botched handshake in a Manhattan gym.

It happened when I walked past a man I recognised — a fellow English journalist — in the changing room. We had both spotted each other, but neither of us wanted to talk. Being polite, however, I half-turned to make sure my acquaintance wouldn’t be offended. He did the same. Reluctant eye contact was made, so we both said “Hey!” in faux cheery voices.

This created another problem: could the greeting be left at that? With my shoulders now at 35 degrees to my hips, I decided that it couldn’t; so I turned and offered a warm, sweaty right hand. My acquaintance (the greetee) didn’t notice the gesture until it was too late.

Quickly, I withdrew. By this time, however, his own hand was being extended. Panicked, I sent my palm back into the action, only to notice that its target was now retreating. Unable to rescue the situation, I went ahead with the engagement anyway, missed, and ended up grabbing on to the greetee’s startled thumb.

Once the thumbshake was over, neither of us could look at each other. So we exchanged strangled niceties, then ran back to our exercise machines to work off the embarrassment. I remembered telling myself that only the English could become entangled in such an excruciating social faux pas in a place of relaxation.

I have been wary of handshakes ever since.

Imagine my horror then, when I moved to the West Coast and discovered that hip-hop culture had created an alien repertoire of shakes, hugs, slaps and clutches exchanged between grown, white (yes, white) males. All this wouldn’t be so much of a problem, of course, if my fiancée didn’t work in the music industry. As it is, I face the humiliation of fumbled physical contact every time we go out.

This is what I’ve learnt: the first time you meet a fellow West Coast male, a handshake is fine. The problem comes on the second greeting. The trick, as I understand it, is to go in for a normal handshake, but pull the greetee in towards you, bend over slightly, then with your free left hand slap your friend or acquaintance on the upper spine. I have yet to perform the shakehug without incident. Once, I ended up smacking my forehead into the greetee’s mouth. Then there was the time I found myself patting a new friend’s buttocks.

In terms of complexity — and the potential for sleep-disrupting flashbacks the shakehug is nothing compared with the slaptughug.

It’s important to detect a slaptughug before any physical contact is made, because it involves slapping palms with the greetee, as if you’re about to arm wrestle. Offering a mispositioned hand could result in serious injury as well as social exclusion. As far as I can tell, the slaptughug is usually deployed on the second or third greeting, between males in their late twenties or early thirties who consider themselves roughly equal in status and coolness. It’s a favourite with musicians.

Here’s how you do it: slap your palm against the greetee’s in the floating armwrestle position, shake, then slide your hand back towards your body while curling your fingers into a kind of rock climbing grip. When your fingers catch on the greetee’s, tug hard, then put your hand into the shape of a pointed gun, and tap your index finger against the greetee’s. While you’re doing this, bend slightly and slap the greetee on the back (aim carefully).

Luckily, not all American males enjoy the slaptughug, which requires years of practice. “Oh man, I did it ’cos I thought you would think I was being an asshole if I didn’t,” Aaron, a guitarist friend, complained after the subject was raised by my fiancée.

Needless to say, our earlier botched greeting had been followed by coughs and downward glances. “I’m actually a germophobe,” the rock star explained. “I really hate touching people.”

I will be offering handshakes only from now on.

I see from that Business Etiquette for Dummies contains an entire chapter on handshake technique (it berates “sloppy shakers” who don’t grip hard enough, while instructing conference delegates to pin name tags on their right shoulder, because that’s where greetees naturally look).

It’s about time we had a book and instructional DVD on the shakehug and the slaptughug.

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