Have you ever noticed that handshakes speak their own secret language? If you pay attention you’ll hear them whisper, yell, fret, or fawn.
And handshakes of the rich and famous—they’re amplified.
I’m at a soirée in New York when I meet the handshake on the far end of the spectrum. The band plays “Getting to Know You” as I receive an obligatory up-down jerk from junk bond King Michael Milken. Avoiding eye contact, Michael looks over my shoulder, searching for someone with status. “Isn’t There Someone More Interesting Here?” his handshake grumbles.
My favorite is the I’m Sincerely Pleased to Meet You and I Mean It shake, a double grip sporting three up-down pumps, meaningful eye contact, and a personal comment. For a fleeting moment, the shake feels like the belle of the ball. If I’m ever a VIP, this is the shake I’ll master. My first encounter with the Sincere shake is at the White House, when I meet Hillary Clinton.
She’s all warmth and compliments, asking about my experience as a woman in the early days of Microsoft. There’s a smallish crowd here, so I figure she was briefed on the guests. Extensive background checks are required to get this close to the First Lady, the First Lady who memorized information on me. I am enthralled. Now she asks my opinion of contemporary poets.
I meet the Sincere shake again at a swanky Manhattan watering hole, where my friend Joel is celebrating his daughter’s debut at Carnegie Hall. I mingle with the glamorous crowd, feeling a little self-conscious as my jewels are not precious, my gown not couture. Barbara Walters is in the corner. She’s smaller than I’d expected—tiny, feisty, like an action figure. I introduce myself and she looks up smiling. I believe she is sincerely pleased to meet me and she means it.
“I love The View. It’s a wonderful show,” I gush. We are still holding hands.
“Thank you so much for saying that. Lately more people mention The View than 20-20. Why, do you think?”
“Because we want to drink coffee and chat with our girlfriends, like you do on the show—”
“And none of us have time to in our real lives—”
“We need to change that,” she says with a brisk nod.
And I want to, to have time for girlfriends, but I am too busy trying to become a player, and I want her to be my friend, and I want to call her “Babs” and have some girl talk right here, right in the middle of this fancy private dining room where everyone except Barbara looks like they don’t want to know me because I’m not red-carpet perfect so I clearly am not a player. But I don’t cozy up to Barbara, because it doesn’t feel right. It feels kinda kiss-ass.
The second time I shake with Hillary we’re in the garden of a private Los Altos home. Once more she chooses the Sincere shake and then, to my astonishment, continues our conversation from eight months ago.
“So nice to see you again,” Hillary smiles. “I’ve considered our last conversation, at the White House, on poetry, and—”
She remembers we discussed Maya Angelou and e. e. cummings? There’s gotta be a wire in her ear, with Secret Service on the other end reading cue cards. I tilt to the left, lean forward, look at her ear. Hillary notices, her raised eyebrows seeming to ask, “Is there bird poop in my hair?”
“Great earrings!” I offer.
I thought I’d sampled the complete range of shakes until encountering the I’m Hanging in There for the Long Haul shake. This one features a few dozen up-down pumps, a lengthy—like 15 minutes—handholding session coupled with extended, earnest conversation. Leaning against the creamy wall of the White House ballroom, I’m watching President Bill Clinton work the crowd.
“Have you noticed he doesn’t let go of the pretty young women?” a man approaches me, grinning beneath bushy gray brows.
“Oh, um, no, I hadn’t,” I lie.
“I’ve been to many White House gatherings, and I always observe this ritual. Amusing, no?” He introduces himself as a Nobel Laureate.
“Give it a try,” he gestures forward. “I’ll stay here and do field research,” he chuckles, nudges me to motion.
Crossing the room, I reach Bill moments after his last Long Haul shake ends. We smile, we grasp, and we’re off. Here I am, not sure whether we’re at midshake. It’s been 10 minutes and my arm is starting to ache. Women glare at me, like I’m hogging the President. I’m not. I wanted a simple shake ’n’ howdy and now I’m stuck. Do I have to wait until the president lets go?
I smile, chat, and tug, ever so gently, to release. Bill begins up-down pumping. Are we starting from scratch? And now, to complicate matters, I have to pee. Badly. I need an action item, an excuse to say, “I’ll get back to you on that, Mr. President. Tally ho!” Okay, “tally ho” isn’t appropriate, but my arm is throbbing and turning cold. It’s my right arm, my really important arm, my key-to-earning-my-livelihood arm. I press my legs together, as my bladder’s screaming has grown insistent. The four Secret Service agents behind the president stare at me, stony faced. They have seen it all before. Release me. Please. I mentally beg the CEO of America.
He doesn’t seem to notice, or if he does, he still wants to hold hands so I am out of luck. But he’s the president, and, well is this appropriate? This holding me hostage with his presidential power? He’s taller than me, and he holds my hand higher than is natural. It’s starting to look a bit bluish. It’s tingling from lack of blood, turning colder. I straighten up, beg into Bill’s sparkly eyes. “Mr. President, we need to encourage entrepreneurship in America.”
“How would y’ do that, Christine?”
“Oh . . . lots of ways.”
“A . . . uh, proposal. Yes, I’ll write a proposal for you, enumerate my ideas . . . ”
“Ahlright, Ah’ll look forward to thayat.”
“Great meeting you, Mr. President. I’ll get to work right away.” I yank free my numb, leaden hand, smiling and bowing a little. I spin on my heel, eager to exit, but he dives in for an encore.
“Ahm lookin’ forward to your proposal,” He nods.
Okay, now I really, really have to go. Time to be a little rude. What would Michael Milken do?
“Oh! There’s Stephen Hawking! I’ve been searching for him all night,” I twist, pull free, beat a hasty retreat to the rest room.
As I return to the party a man plows into me. “Christine, Joe Bernsby, great to meet you!” A bull-like man thrusts a fleshy, sweating hand into my freshly washed one. “Loved your speech at the Department of Defense.”
“Thank you,” I say, wincing a little. Glancing over his shoulder, I think, Isn’t there someone more interesting here?
Later I seek refuge in the Red Room, remorse sweeping over me. A sincere man had expressed appreciation, and I’d dismissed him. Haven’t I learned anything? I apologize in my mind to the moist man, and recall the shake I want to master, the one that makes people feel special.
“Hi,” I say crouching before the seated man. He’s alone, slumped over the little desk attached to his wheelchair. “Your speech was terrific,” I tell him. “You make physics so . . . accessible. Thanks.” He smiles and shifts a little, preparing to type a reply into his speech synthesizer. Aware of the effort I say, “You needn’t respond.”
He looks up at me, into me, with deep dark eyes—no black holes here. His eyes embrace me in a down-duvet hug. And there it is: connection. I can feel his anguish, his giant, potent mind trapped in a tiny, twisted body. I no longer care that I’m not a player, that I lack real jewels and couture gowns, that I’ll probably never be all that important. Because my quest for success has been about being seen, about banishing the perpetual feeling of invisibility and inconsequence, about making sure I matter. And right now, I do. I feel seen all the way through.
And I realize that this . . . this is the moment that I’ll remember most—not attending a White House party, not shaking hands with the wealthy and well known, not breaking free from Bill Clinton—but this very real, better-than-a-handshake moment: the soulshake, the touchless shake, of Professor Stephen Hawking.
As a result of her handshake with Bill Clinton, Christine Comaford spent 2 years developing the Clinton Administration’s technology leadership strategy. Today she combines neuroscience and business strategy to help CEOs achieve rapid growth and create high performance teams. The complete version of her Handshakes story may be found in her NY Times bestseller “Rules for Renegades.”