I’m Good, Thanks

by Tom Swift

This morning at the gym I looked up to see the manager of a liquor store I had visited for the first time the other day.

“Max,” I said. I was reasonably sure my memory of his name was correct. I was certain the man before me had helped me pick out a Pinot Grigio.

He nodded.

Max was honest; he did not readily recall my name. I told him. “You answered my questions about Bailey’s [Irish Cream],” I added. I am not a great alcohol mind.

“Yes!” Max smiled.

Meanwhile, Max had also stuck out his hand. The same way he had the other night. The other night, I shook his hand. This morning, I feigned not noticing. It was easy enough in this case. I was already on the move, we were no longer face to face, and he held low. I decided I would rather be rude than take his hand just then. It’s nothing against Max. Of late, I have been avoiding handshakes. They are, after all, if you consider the unwitting transfer of germs that occurs during them, rather disgusting. (I have no doubt, by the way, that I give out as much or more as I am getting in these exchanges. A University of Colorado at Boulder study found that a typical hand has roughly 150 different species of bacteria living on it and that seldom does our particular batch of bacteria match that of the person we’re shaking hands with. [1])

Thus far, my efforts to avoid the various hands extended to me have been mixed. Sometimes I have a built-in-excuse, such as cuts on my fingers from lifting weights. Other times, I make one up, saying something about fighting a cold is usually what comes out of my mouth. This morning, after passing Max, I decided I need to become more elegant in my handling of hands. That is, a need to find a way not to lie and yet still be respectful. You can tell me I am being ridiculous — dude, just shake the guy’s hand — and I’m OK with that. I got sick last February, sicker than I ever have been as an adult, maybe sicker than in my entire life. Sure, I could again this winter pick up the flu and/or bronchitis combo platter another way. But I’m not going to go around asking for it, either.

To be sure, I do not believe we should attempt to sterilize all aspects of our lives. We are going to be exposed to germs and bacteria and a host of microbes. We are, after all, an accumulation of such creatures. Our homes do not need to be hospitals. Just as it’s not healthy to eat healthfully 100 percent of the time, it’s not possible or even desirable to avoid all contact with bacteria that is not your own. The woman at my financial institution who helped me the other day … I wanted to take her hand when she extended it. This is different than saying I want to shake hands with everyone I meet anymore than I want to kiss everyone I meet.

So: what shall I do instead of shaking hands?

In Tibet, they stick tongues out. Perhaps I could see how that goes over. The Japanese bow. They do in Thailand, too — with hands in the prayer position. I like that. Hmmm, though not sure. In several cultures people put their noses together. I like Max but probably not touching his schnoz anytime soon.

Like many such dilemmas, I thought about it then quickly punted. Perhaps I’ll come up with something later. Then, sure enough, later was fifteen odd minutes later, as I was in the basement warming up for my back-squats. That’s when I struck up a conversation with a guy about the Romanian deadlifts he was finishing. He set his bar down and headed right for me. He was done with his sets and his way upstairs. “My name is Dave, by way,” he said. He led with an extended hand.

If I knew Romanian it would be fun to have greet my new friend the way we would greet each other if we lived in that country: Buna dimineata! “I’m going to fist bump you,” I said instead.

Dave smiled. And for a second I did, too. A solid pressing of knuckles. That works. At least in the land of dumbbells.

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[1] “Women Have More Diverse Hand Bacteria Than Men,” citing a study by Micah Hamady, Christian Lauber, and Rob Knight, CU Boulder Today, November 3, 2008.