DeWitt Henry

August 25, 2017 Henry DeWitt



There are firm ones.  Soft, almost boneless ones.  Hardy/hearty ones.  Two-handed ones, cocooning.  Congratulatory ones (well done!).  Business ones, the deal settled.  Kinship ones.  Secret, coded ones for fraternities and special groups.  Ones for greeting and for farewell.  Ones for reconciliation, after fights.

Less than hugs, but sometimes prelude to one, with pats on the back.

“Forgive me for not shaking hands,” says the mechanic, hands smeared with oil and grease.

Rough hands, thick and calloused.  Delicate hands, protected by gloves.  Warm hands, cold.

A gesture of peace, perhaps, by hands without of weapons.

One recent variation is the fist-bump, knuckles to knuckles (which probably mimics fighters touching gloves before and after bouts).

Another, the prankster’s, is hiding a buzzer in the palm; or suddenly jerking back the hand, just before the clasp.

More elaborate are hand kisses, in the high European style.  The lady extends her hand, palm down, and the gentleman (never a lady) touches her fingers with his lips.  This implies respect to the lady, if not adoration and obeisance.

Different cultures shake with different meanings.  In Russia, a man who shakes a woman’s hand, instead of kissing it, is seen as impolite (except in business deals, where shaking is expected).  Moroccans greet with a kiss on each cheek or after shaking, place the palm on the heart.  Weak handshakes are best in Japan, China, and South Korea; firm ones in Norway.  Hindis give a slight bow with hands pressed together, palms touching, meaning to convey “I bow to the divine in you.”

Tickling a shakee’s hand with the middle finger is an invitation to sex.

“Palm to palm is palmer’s kiss.”

Press the flesh.

Islam discourages handshakes between men and women, probably to ensure chastity.  In Switzerland, when an Imam’s sons recently refused to shake their teacher’s hand—a Swiss tradition—authorities imposed a $5000 fine and provoked an international controversy.    The boys had protested that “shaking a female teacher’s hand was against their beliefs as Muslims because physical contact with the opposite sex is allowed only to family members” (USA Today, 5/26/16).  Deedra Abboud, a convert to Islam, sees the Swiss response as intolerant.  To shake or not is a personal choice, she insists.  She worries about girls discontinuing school or participating in society in order to avoid the physical touch requirement.  Instead, she advises men to ask permission of Muslim women before offering to shake.  Also observant Muslim women can wear gloves, if need be; or hold their hands behind their back.  She herself has shaken hands with men in Muslim countries, and has relaxed the rule in her Western business life. “As societies become more diverse, even without immigration, some traditions will survive and some will not. Mostly it will depend on the reasons behind the traditions and how well those ideas are articulated as valuable and relevant to an ever-evolving world” ( ).


In addition to religious customs, there are also health and safety concerns.  Handshakes spread germs.  No one shook on deals with the germaphobe Howard Hughes. Supermarkets offer wipes to sanitize shopping cart handles as a precaution against epidemics of flu or AIDS.  Dentists and doctors wear latex gloves to protect them from our bodily fluids and us from theirs.  Gyms request that users wipe down equipment.  Schools dispense wipes to protect against germs, which can be transmitted on door handles, on railings, on desks and keyboards.  Students and teachers are cautioned to wash their hands often.  And toll collectors?  Some wear gloves, some don’t.  Most toll payers do not.  And money itself?


We ask for a woman’s (or partner’s) hand in marriage.  “Dear Isabel,” announces Measure for Measure’s Duke to the novice nun, “I have a motion much imports your good.”  She remains silent, but usually they exit hand in hand.

We hold hands, or walk hand in hand, for belonging, for comfort, for safety.

Give me a hand, we say; or in extremis, rescue me.

In “Hands Across Catholic America,” Andrew Santella writes: “In many churches it has become standard practice for churchgoers to hold hands with their neighbors as they pray the Our Father, sometimes reaching across aisles and over pew-backs to do so. Hand-holders say the practice is all about community and fellowship and unity. (It’s called the Our Father, they like to say, not the My Father.) But to some old-school Catholics, hand-holding detracts from the solemnity of the Mass and the sober mysteries of Catholic tradition”  ( ).

As we filed out of church in my boyhood, our Presbyterian minister stood at the rear shaking hands like a party host.

The young John Keats’s last fragment:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Edward Hirsch comments: “He [the poet] once lifted up a living hand. It reaches out to us still, but now through words. Here it is—this made work, this living thing. Look, he is holding out his hand.  He is challenging you, whoever you are, to grasp it”

( ).

DeWitt Henry’s chapbook, FOUNDLINGS: FOUND POEMS FROM PROSE (Life Before Man/ Gazebo Books), and his first collection, RESTLESS FOR WORDS: POEMS (Finishing Line Press) are available this fall, 2022.  His memoir, ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS: FAMILY ESSAYS (Mad Hat, 2021), was long listed for the PEN Award for the Art of the Essay, 2022.  He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and is Prof. Emeritus at Emerson College. Details at .