"What is it that a gentleman does standing up, a lady does sitting down and a dog does on three legs?" While one answer may seem obvious and involve a natural bodily function, the actual answer is "Shake hands." True gentlemen stand up to shake hands; ladies do it while remaining seated; dogs, by necessity do it on three legs. It's a commonly accepted form of polite greeting upon being introduced or upon reunion, but is there a bigger message? What if we DON'T shake hands with someone?
This came to mind yesterday evening (as I type this) when I met former brother police officer Deon (last name not printed here since I didn't get his permssion first) in a Starbuck's Coffee Shop. I overheard his need for a bit of info as I was reading on my tablet PC and provided it for him with a quick Google search. When he introduced himself and put his hand out for the obligatory handshake, I had to withhold mine. Why? Simple courtesy. I am currently suffering from an allergic reaction (to what neither I, nor the doctor, haven't figured out yet) which has caused my hands to break out in a rash. While it's not contagious, it doesn't look so great and I found myself in the position of denying the handshake and then explaining why. Deon graciously understood and our conversation continued.
Later in the evening it occurred to me that the act of NOT shaking hands, if not explained, can be taken by people as someone having been rude. In Robert B. Parker's novels about Virgil Cole, contracted City Marshal, the character NEVER shakes hands. Why? "It just doesn't make any sense to let someone get hold of you." Some of you are shaking your head at the thought. Others are nodding in agreement. As I reflected on that thought and the implications for law enforcement professionals, I realized that there are probably times when we DON'T shake hands but we could.
Do we shake hands with everyone we meet? Oh, HECK no. We have to interact with plenty of shady characters and it just doesn't make any sense to let them get hold of us. This is a simple matter of officer survival and I think we all can identify those folks who we DON'T want to shake hands with by a number of things: their appearance, their body language, why we initially interact with them, their known history, etc. Let's face it: we don't want to shake hands with the bad guys. It simply makes no sense. On the other hand...
How many perfectly "normal" people do we meet, whom we have no reason to suspect of anything, but we still maintain that reactionary distance and don't shake their hand? Plenty. On the one hand this is a very smart thing to do. "Better safe than sorry." On the other hand, every rejected handshake can be taken as an insult to that person we don't shake hands with. Every insult ONE of us makes reflects on ALL of us.
So, am I suggesting we simply shake hands with everyone we meet? Again, oh, HECK no; however, I think there are plenty of people we meet that we can interact with in a manner they find less disrespectful or stand-off-ish. Further, I think that if we are mindful of how such a simple act of shaking hands (or not) can reflect on us as a profession, we will (subconsciously) begin to apply that awareness to other behaviors as well.
Again, NEVER sacrifice or compromise your officer survival, but remember, as you do "the job," that we are all human first; the job is not who you are - it's what you do; and everyone likes to be treated with the proper modicum of common courtesy.