All England was rather miffed when a gentleman on the football field last February refused to shake another gentleman’s hand because of various crisply expressed opinions off-field. The papers went on about it for weeks and first gent has since been left out of the England squad for the European Championships. Which brings me nicely to the subject of greeting. In France, men and women kiss. A lot. Not the old full-frontal tongue-wrestling, of course, but a three or fourfold collision of cheeks – depending how well you know each other. Once, in Paris (where else) a woman from the French Caribbean licked my face by way of greeting. Apart from the sexual frisson this engendered, I found myself more pleasantly surprised than not. But, back to ‘shakey, shakey’. Egyptians swing their hand like a mallet towards you, which you're expected to catch. In Anglican churches, there is the cringingly time-honoured tradition of ‘passing the peace’ where we move solemnly around and shake hands with everyone in some kind of medieval gesture of solidarity, tempered with British reserve, sometimes barking the imprecation ‘Peace!” at each other.
Now, while I most certainly do not condone the discrimination of anyone based on the politics of the football field or the colour of their socks, but I have to say that I’m all in favour of giving handshakes a miss. They may well be the unspoken greeting of gentry and look marvellous in photographs when accompanied by big cheques, treaties and politicians, but they are really quite repugnant to my sensitive, hygienically-manicured soul.
Think back to the last handshake you were forced to engage in, I say “forced” because let’s face it, clasping hands with a stranger doesn’t come naturally, does it? Tell me, was it enjoyable? Did you want to carry on shaking that hand for the rest of the day? No, you did not. It was probably something you wanted done with as fast as possible and never speak of again. It was either bone-crushingly painful or suspiciously feeble, like being handed a dead turbot. At worst it was post-bathroom moist so you began to wonder if the shaker had washed after visiting the bathroom. If you’re not worrying about how best to strap up the broken fingers on your own hand without becoming openly tearful in the face of your overbearing assailant, you have to worry about the etiquette and hidden meaning of your own grip. Too firm and you come off as a ball-busting megalomaniac who uses orphans for target practice, too weak and everyone will know you cry yourself to sleep at night because you can’t open a jar of peanut butter that’s been sitting in the cupboard since 1984 and that your mother still sews name tags into your Calvins.
Then there’s the whole issue of going top or bottom. No-one ever wants to be top or bottom but sometimes you’re forced into it. Stop sniggering. There have been whole books written about whether you go top or bottom; top means you’re an aggressively overbearing testosterone-fuelled alpha double plus and bottom means you have the spinal fortitude of a jellyfish. Shaking hands can be a sociological minefield of judgement made worse by the twiddles and fumbles that the Masons append to the gesture. Which brings me to the delicate matter of hygiene. Those who know me will be aware that I might be said to have a rather overdeveloped sense of the pernickety, but, c’mon, now – be honest - those appendages at the end of your wrists are basically bottom wiping, bogey picking, armpit scratching, sweat mopping, bellybutton fiddling harbingers of grime. No matter how clean you think you are, the person who borrowed your pen for a moment may have just played solo pocket billiards and they almost certainly didn’t use anti-bacterial gel afterwards. Epidemics have been started with less.
What I’m trying to say is that when you kindly offer me your hand in a gesture of mutual goodwill, what I actually see coming towards me is a slightly moist, used repository for at least seventeen kinds of contagion and the last thing I want to do is hold it while we get our formalities out the way.
Is there, I wonder, a suitable alternative to shaking hands besides face licking and canine bottom sniffing? What are we really trying to achieve with a handshake? We’re trying to ingratiate ourselves, get physically close to someone and show that we mean them no harm by putting them at their ease and show that we are on an even social and cultural playing field . Perhaps we should learn to bow instead. Or, shake penises. Some do.