The Middlebury Campus


By Joy Zhu

It was not until I came to America that I began shaking hands with other people. I have navigated a diverse species of hands since I came here – the massive bear paws of big football players which engulf mine like the sea to newly-hatched sea turtles. There are small willowy fingers, cold and clammy hands, hands that feel like cold concrete, and hands that feel like shrouds of dry leaves. Yet, what intrigues me most were the handshakes where the other person jolts you into another paradigm of communication with his iron grip, leaving you half floating on the verbal surface of meaning, wondering what he meant by that alarming squeeze.

I think it is the paradox between menace and warmth that intrigues me. Handshakes embody the formal (and trite) exchanges of “how do you dos” and names, and yet the action itself is bodily – not only are you introduced to the person, but also introduced to his living skin and his body, which conveys another message. Does the degree of strength with which you grip another’s hand indicate an invitation to a challenge? Or rather, reassurance? In the past, I’ve used a handshake to stealthily tip the cook during my trekking expedition in India. What is the message a handshake is trying to tell? How do the nuances of the gestures alter its meaning?

I think there is an inherent frigidity to the gesture because of the formality. Perhaps connections one can easily make with just a jolt of the wrist dilute the significance of a relationship. Or maybe the arcane semantics of the ritual just make me feel too uneasy for me to decipher its meaning, although it is very interesting at the same time.

At Middlebury Uncensored, Associate Professor of English Jonathan Miller-Lane mentioned America’s “hyperbole culture” in communication. He meant that people here tend to respond in an exaggerated fashion – “Awesome!” “Really?!” “Oh my God!” To some extent, I think shaking hands is a part of this overstatement. This friendly gesture of welcome overstates your pleasure at being introduced to another person and is misleading because it misrepresents your opinion of that person at the moment of introduction (that must be why politicians always shake hands on television). I feel the same way about people here – people are so nice to each other, I always feel like it is disingenuous in a way.  Aren’t humans supposed to be inherently selfish, and how can they exhibit such unlimited altruism to such a wide range of diverse life forms? This tolerance touches upon godliness, which is frightening because it defies the definition of being human.

Sometimes, I feel more at home in the city because you can freely express your intolerance, whereas here niceness is social etiquette you are supposed to follow. I think I prefer knowing a person honestly through knowing their real feelings – no matter how obnoxious they might be – instead of a person limited by social etiquette. It is a bit like looking at a candid photograph versus a posed portrait, the latter of which is the handshake, so beautiful and inviting it makes you ponder whether you are falling back upon a lie.












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