Matter of Laugh or Death
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
YOU'VE GOT TO HAND IT TO THESE GUYS
Why do some guys act as if the sole purpose of shaking hands is to crush all of the other person’s bones from the wrist on down? Do they enjoy listening to the crunching and popping sounds? Do they get a kick out of seeing the other guy struggle to maintain his smile while every nerve in his body is screaming, “Ouch!”?
Some days my hand is so sore I’m certain a doctor should reset my bones and put my wrist and hand in a cast. Other days I’d like to wear a cast just to protect my right hand from the next vise-gripped gorilla I meet. (Although that probably wouldn’t do any good. I can see it now: “Umm, Fred, you just squeezed my cast so hard it exploded into a cloud of white dust. Do you think you could help me find my knuckles? I think one of them rolled under that table.”)
Shaking hands dates back to ancient times. (“Ancient times” to my kids means anything before the invention of the Internet, while in my mind, “ancient times” usually means anything before the invention of color television.) However, in the real ancient times, men would greet each other by clasping right hands. This gesture sent a clear message: “I have no intention of attacking you since my sword-wielding hand is currently busy trying to crush your knuckles.”
(I’m not sure what they did with left-handed guys. It would be easy for them to clasp right hands, smile sincerely, and stick a knife in your back. Reminds me of a supervisor I had many years ago.)
For a while men would also greet each other by standing on one leg, raising their right foot into the air, and wiggling each other’s toes together. This gesture sent a clear message: “I have no intention of kicking you since my butt-kicking foot is currently busy playing footsie—besides, I feel like such a jerk doing this, I don’t want to fight, I want to run away and hide.”
Some men took the additional step of pressing their lips against the lips of the other guy, sending the clear message: “I have no intention of biting you…but can I buy you a drink, fella?” This particular gesture was popular in ancient Greece and is currently fashionable in modern San Francisco.
Since I am an Executive Territory Account Manager (traveling salesman), I shake hands all day long. By two o’clock in the afternoon, my right hand is so sore, I often feel like playing only nine holes. (Oh, you thought Executive Territory Account Mangers worked hard until 6 p.m.? Hee hee, aren’t you silly.)
The customers I visit each day work in the sheet metal trade. Ironically, the guys in the shop, with forearms like Popeye, are always gentle. They know they’re capable of doing serious damage to a white-collar weenie like me, so they shake hands firmly but carefully. It’s the guys in the office—the draftsmen, engineers, and salesmen—who think a simple greeting is a macho test of manhood.
I don’t understand how a gesture which originally meant, “I am not a threat; we are friends,” has now come to mean in many people’s minds, “I am stronger than you, wuss-boy! Don’t you forget it!”
Maybe all those years of sitting at computer terminals and drafting tables—while a mere 50 feet away real men are pounding metal and fabricating ductwork—has produced a little male insecurity in the office staff. When an outsider (me) invades their territory (even when I bring a peace offering: donuts), they apparently have an instinctive urge to display their power and strength. Since they do not possess peacock feathers to ruffle nor fangs to bare, and since pounding your chest and screaming like Tarzan in no longer socially acceptable—even in the sheet metal trade—they do the next best thing: squeeze my hand until I whimper.
Recently I came down with a bad cold and my wife ordered me not to shake anyone’s hand. She read in a woman’s magazine that cold germs are most often transmitted via hand shaking. (How could we survive without woman’s magazines? If we didn’t have all that important health information, our life expectancy would plummet from the current age 77 all the way down to, oh, about 76-and-a-half.)
Every time I met someone holding out his hand, I said, “No, no. I don’t want to give you my cold.” I went a full week without getting my knuckles crunched. Now if I can just get my doctor to write me a six-month prescription for a bottle of cold germs, my hand will have a chance to heal.
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