2013-04-29 14:26:59

Dear ‘Gentleman Scholar’: Shaking hands with a woman is easy

A woman in business attire smiles and shakes a hand off screenYou see a business associate at a conference. You meet a new co-worker at the plant. Your boss wants to meet with you for a second.

But there’s a complication! The person in question is a woman. Tricky stuff. What do you do?

Hold out your hand. Shake it two to three times firmly whilst making eye contact. All fingers, yes. Smile and continue with business.

Shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex should be that simple, but unfortunately others don’t see it that way. Gentleman Scholar (yes, that is the name of his advice column) Troy Patterson offered up some advice to a befuddled fellow gentleman. The man wrote to Patterson after he shook hands with one woman, who didn’t appreciate his firm grip. For all Patterson or I know, it was a bone-crunching death grip. Then he offered a woman a limp handshake, and she didn’t like that at all! It’s almost like different women have different reactions to different kinds of social communication!

The advice-seeker is upset because he did everything he could to please these strange creatures called women but apparently there is no right way to satisfy these people. The first mistake that both the advice seeker and advice giver make is assuming there is one correct way to treat as varied a population as women.

The second mistake is made by Patterson, who goes on to explain that women are delicate little teacups that require gentle care:

The Gentleman Scholar knows that a gentleman always treats a woman gently. He breaks this rule only at her encouragement, like if she’s begging you to pull her hair or something—a rather more clear-cut form of physical communication than that which concerns us today. 

Now, unless he’s referring to elementary school antics, Patterson is conflating rules around sex with a business practice, saying that you should use the same considerations and rules you use in a heteronormative dating situation. Even comedically, this is wrong on so many levels.  During the debate over comments the president made to Attorney General Kamala Harris, several men commented to reaction pieces by saying, “What, I can’t even compliment a woman I’m on a date with now? I can’t even approach a woman at a bar by saying she’s attractive?” Some men can’t talk about interacting with women without referring to sex and dating because they see women as wives and girlfriends first and co-workers and bosses second.

He then tells this man to relax: men have never known how to deal with women in a business setting!

Flipping through books on professional etiquette, we discover tales of men who’ve worked in sales for 20 years without ever feeling at ease shaking hands with the opposite sex.

There is a reason it’s been so difficult for men to feel at ease shaking hands with the opposite sex. In some male-dominated environments, say business, politics, tech-startups, ivy league academia, I could go on…men don’t do it very often! They don’t see women often enough, as equal colleagues or as bosses, to understand how they should interact with them. This is a product of sexism. It is not because women are beguiling mermaids or sphinxes; riddles men will never guess the answer to, as Patterson alludes to here:

Basic intimate contact is such a marvelously complex issue that it makes the Gentleman Scholar want to get all scholarly and apprehend its slippery meanings.

He cites scholarly papers on the handshake issue. He quotes Cliff Goddard’s Semantic Analysis. We’re at a really intellectual place right now, because after all he is the Gentleman Scholar.

Now, when you’re shaking hands with another able-bodied adult male, you will likely want to be more assertive than that. But those are the basics of the thing—mano a mano compression, mutual exploration, manual self-expression.

I find the words “able-bodied adult male” interesting. Maybe Patterson is just trying to be as clear as possible and tell his readers that you should not hurt a little boy’s hand or…someone whose hand is not functioning or has arthritis? But I think this should be common knowledge. I find the words he chose interesting because a history of chivalry has assumed weakness and childlike tendencies from women, and the weak handshake is just an extension of that. Some women have spent an entire day pushing another human being out of their bodies. Some women have climbed mountains or ran marathons. Women are not inherently fragile. My hands are so small that it takes some real work to find a ring size that fits me, but I would rather get the death grip any day than have a man approach me as if I were Princess of Monaco.

At the end of this drawn out handshake guide, Patterson says one useful thing that he should have led with up top:

A moment’s reflection should lead a guy to realize that his grip is equipped with a self-regulating pressure gauge: Shaking hands with a woman, he, like the lab hand-shakers, allows his partner to determine the force of the shake and responds in kind.

 Ah, I see. At the end of the day, women are human beings. Some of us give the death grip and others give limp handshakes, and everything in between. So I should see how the person reacts and then decide what kind of pressure I should use? How novel!


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