Handshakes, Hugs and Eye Contact

“Touch has a memory.” ― John Keats

Our first impression of someone is created in seven seconds. Yes, that’s usually without hearing a word.

This makes a lot of sense. A person’s posture and gait reveal what they think of themselves. Their gaze illustrates how they see the world. Their appearance indicates their taste.

There’s also their energy, which we can feel when we fret less about the impression we’re creating. We can sense someone’s serenity, hostility, enthusiasm or discomfort. When they speak, all they do is confirm what we had already surmised.

We may never get that second chance to create a first impression, but there are plenty of other ways to improve the way we meet and greet people.

I Want To Hold Your Hand

A handshake sounds so simple. And yet!

I find it unspeakably off-putting when someone has a limp handshake. There are variations of this:

There’s the hand that’s semi-closed and weakly proffered, allowing us to grasp only the tips of someone’s fingers, as if they think we might contaminate them. So insulting. Women do this especially; please stop.

There’s the kind that offer a hand with the palm down, like they’re royalty. This forces us to twist our hand up for palm to meet palm. So selfish.

There’s the wet fish version where they may offer their whole hand but there’s no vigour – they don’t grasp, let alone pump, it’s very “yawn, whatever.” So rude.

Then there’s the opposite: the death grip. If I’m wearing rings, a tight squeeze can make my eyes water. So jolting. Men do this especially; please stop.

After all the wet fish and death grips I encounter, I swoon over a good handshake. A friendly, firm handshake while looking the other person in the eye is all it takes.

I made a decision when I worked in Bangladesh many years back, that even if men weren’t always used to shaking hands with women, I would do it in every business situation. I thought it was appropriate and professional. I noticed some people being taken aback at first, but soon enough, it was fine. I shook hands with men and with women. It helped illustrate the respect we had for each other.

I still introduce myself socially with a handshake too. Perhaps because it’s been drilled into me from living many years in different countries as a friendly (look, no weapons!) way to meet and touch someone the first time. Perhaps because that first handshake will tell me a lot about someone before they say a word. Perhaps because it’s something definitive and clear, as opposed to standing awkwardly, raising a hand to say hi, or rushing in to kiss someone when they’re not prepared for it. It’s an even middle ground that shouldn’t offend anyone.

When it doesn’t work: when we know the person well and it’s not a business situation. Then a handshake could feel cold. It’s someone putting distance between us. Oops. Must have offended them the last time. (Not entirely implausible in my case.)

Can You Feel It

Hugs are for people we’ve met before, or they feel so familiar that shaking their hand could feel faintly insulting in its formality.

Nothing delighted me more than when I held out my hand when meeting someone for the first time, and she hugged me instead, saying she felt she knew me from reading my blog.

Unlike a handshake, though, the closer proximity of a hug can make it a veritable landmine.

There’s the real hug, which is terrific. This is putting both arms (or just one, if the other is, say, holding a bag) around a person, facing the space behind them, and giving a gentle, unhurried squeeze. It involves half body contact. It feels sincere.

There’s the faux hug. Like where you sort of wrap an arm but face the same direction as the other person. This is only acceptable when you’re having a photo taken. Otherwise, it’s too luvvie, dahling and muah muah. Urgh, go away.

There’s a wet fish equivalent of a hug that I find deeply irritating. It’s a constipated offer of a shoulder with a hand half outstretched to feebly pat you on the back. It says, “I’m being polite but I still think you may contaminate me.” Or: “big strong me will take care to not crush your bones, little lady.” Either way, please stop.

The man hug is quite funny to me (but then, so is the man flu). This is the gripping handshake with a simultaneous gripping half-hug with the other arm. I’ve noticed that the more “powerful” of the pair will have a more authoritative grip and be the last one to give that definitive slap on the back.

Then there’s the leap back to avoid a hug. This happened to me a few times in Dhaka with men. Puzzled, I talked to my cousin about it. These are my friends from forever! Am I not supposed to touch them all of a sudden or something? Is it a religious thing? It dismayed me to think I was still clueless about social protocol.

My cousin explained that no, it’s normal and expected to hug your friends here; it’s just that now these men are married, they may not want gossip reaching their wives that they were hugging strange women in coffee shops. Oh. (To me, a person of either gender who objects to a spouse’s hugging an old friend is entirely mystifying.)

Cheek to Cheek

I find social kissing more formal than hugging. Hopping around the globe as I do, it can also be confusing. North Americans kiss on one cheek. Europeans on two. I do the two, even with Americans, only for them to have pulled back after the one kiss and I’m left kissing air.

Speaking of air kissing – I can excuse it on a film set when actors’ faces have spent three hours getting ready for the camera. But if I’m offered a vague tilt of a cheek anywhere else, then I’m tempted to plant a lipstick kiss right over all that foundation and powder. Kidding. Just.

I See You

I’ve sometimes wondered if I fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum because it took me ages to learn to make eye contact when speaking with someone. I used to look at their mouth – after all, that was the part that was moving. (Also, like many autistic spectrum folks, I take things literally. Don’t get me started on how many years it took to understand that in Bangladesh “five minutes” is not really five minutes. My beef: then why say it?)

In Bangladesh, our male staff, like the driver or cook, will, out of propriety, not look at me when speaking. You know those scenes in movies where cash or cryptic codes are exchanged by people talking into thin air while sitting on park benches and never facing each other? That’s what it looks like. Only we’re discussing what to have for lunch or the best route to take.

I find it amusing (or baffling or enraging, depending on my mood) that one on one, most men here will be polite and avoid making a woman uncomfortable with their gaze, but men en masse find it socially acceptable to stare and even point at a woman outdoors. Being in public seems to be an open invitation for public scrutiny, even public consumption.

I’ve worked with actors who demand nobody can make eye contact with them on set. It unnerves them, apparently. Not to excuse this high-handedness, but eye contact really is intimate. It’s powerful stuff. It connects you to the other person. And – a cause for concern for highly susceptible actors, apparently – it can even take you out of yourself.

Some trivia about eye contact: we can be left-eyed or right-eyed. You can test which one you are by holding up a finger at arm’s length. Look at it with each eye closed, then with both eyes. Whichever eye sees the finger’s position closer to where it is when both eyes are open is the dominant eye. Often, but not always, left-handed people are left-eyed.

You know the expression “seeing eye to eye”?

So, depending on which eye is dominant, we prefer to focus on that eye on other people too. Being left-eyed, I tend to look at others’ left eyes. Is it a coincidence that the majority of my friends are left-handed? (We make up only 10% of the world’s population, after all.) This is because we, literally, see “eye to eye.”

A smart way to override this is to consciously ensure we take turns to look at both eyes. After all, how tragic it would be to miss connecting with someone special because we didn’t gaze into their dominant eye enough.

The Way You Do the Things You Do

Like personal space (wide in the US, very close in Italy, for example), touch is deeply cultural – it is part of an unspoken language that shows we understand each other and the society we live in.

And it’s deeply personal. Touch – and eye contact – is how we engage with people, and how we let the world in. Touching someone and looking them in the eye is about warmth and trust.

The only reason I know I’m not really autistic is because I love affection. Like a baby holding on to a finger, I like confirming the other person is there. It’s reassuring.

In the depths of my depression, many years ago, I would stomp around, sending everyone around me fleeing. I believe now that deprivation of touch made the depression significantly worse. One morning, while crossing the street, a classmate cycled past, holding out his hand to high-five me, and that one touch made me weep. Sit on the side of the road and bawl, actually. The poor man on the cycle, who knew me only slightly, was so alarmed he had to dismount and make sure he hadn’t hurt me.

I flinched from physical contact when I felt dissociated from my body and myself in general. Any reminder would make me jump or feel awkward. It was easier to resort to a wave instead of a handshake, a nod rather than a hug, or look away instead of at the other person. I would fidget. Okay, I still fidget, but that’s usually because I’m too excited to sit still.

Being comfortable enough to make contact with someone or look them in the eye is – as ever – more about us than it is about them. Being at ease with other people really means that we’re at ease with ourselves. Take that, wet fish handshakers of the world.

[On seeing a former lover after years] “I thought I told you to wait in the car!” ― Tallulah Bankhead

Related Recommendations

film iconI shall one day dedicate a whole Ode To post to this film but for now let me just say: watch Rain Man and see how we can learn to live together, being on the autistic spectrum or not.

book icon2For a practical guide to first impressions, public speaking as well as the perfect handshake, read The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane.

podcast iconWatch Amy Cuddy‘s fascinating and informative TED talk for insight into body language: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

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