I’m not a cool person. I like “dad jokes”, puns, portmanteaus, chiptunes, and pretty much everything else that’s the antithesis of young, cool, or hip. Do the kids even say those words anymore? I have no idea.
And yet, I think I have one of those faces that says “Yes, I am down to attempt to a weird handshake high-five gesture-thing in this serious business context.”
This has happened twice now in quick succession, and each time I’ve walked away from the experience cringing and wanting to die from embarrassment.
A month or so ago, the CEO of our company–I work at a digital advertising agency–flew out to our office to meet with all of us. It was just a quick trip and he was going to be in meetings with the higher-ups most of the time he was here. I skipped going to the after work Happy Hour because it was scheduled for a Monday and my wife and I had dinner plans.
So I actually didn’t see our CEO until Tuesday morning, right before he was supposed to leave for the airport. He was making the rounds, saying goodbye, decked out in jeans and a blazer. The perfect, stereotypical image of a not-yet middle aged white guy CEO.
He stops by my desk, and I say the right cliches, “Hey, it was good to meet you in person. Sorry I couldn’t make it last night. You weren’t here for very long.” etc. etc.
I stick out my hand in the traditional pre-handshake position.
His response: “Yeah. We missed you last night. But good to see you, brother.”
Instead of shaking my hand, he turns it into that bro handshake, half high-five gesture. Unless the two parties involved are both on board with the bro-shake, it’s going to turn out awful. Just like it did right there.
This is a “cool” gesture. It’s something I’ve never mastered, preferring the easier one-to-two-pump handshake that’s quick and easy without ambiguity.
He wandered off, probably not giving the encounter a second thought. But it stuck with me.
“Oh, God. I’m so awkward. Couldn’t he have just shook my hand? What was that? And is he Hulk Hogan? Why is he calling me ‘brother’ when this is the first time we’ve ever spoken?”
And thus ends the Tale of Handshake #1.
This encounter happened just yesterday. The company president was in town, much like the CEO’s trip from before. I’ve met the president before; he’s a nice guy as far as I can tell. Older than our CEO. Grandpa status pretty much.
It’s early in the morning. Coffee’s on my mind. He’s making the rounds through our rows of desks saying hi to everyone, introducing himself to our newest associate.
And then he comes to my desk.
Everyone else he’s shaken their hand. I’m primed and ready in the pre-handshake position. And then it happens.
The president raises his arm into the high-five position. I go to meet him halfway thinking it’ll just be a normal “elevated hand slap.” Instead mid-gesture he grabs my hand and turns it into the bro-shake. *insert Darth Vader “Noooooooo!” gif here*
Again, I’m left with questions (in addition to the embarrassment). Is this borne out of a desire to connect with the Young People™ at the office? Do I have something in my demeanor that says “I am cool. Please do cool things when greeting me”? I got no clue.
And this is important because…?
In the grand scheme of things? It’s not. These are just two instances in a long history of awkwardness. I’ll get over them. No big deal.
So let’s tie this back to writing, shall we? I do put words together on occasion for monetary compensation. What can we learn from these two encounters? Characterization.
Take both my CEO and president. Going for the bro-shake despite the work setting, the age difference between me and them, and their behavior around other subordinates, are all examples of characterization. It’s how they talk, the gestures they use, how they do them. If they were characters in a book and these events happened, readers would be able to picture exactly what was happening.
And what about my reaction? Internal monologue can also show characterization. In this instance it shows the differences between how I see myself, what I’m comfortable with as far as workplace interactions with superiors go, and how I react to being put into an awkward situation. (Blaming myself. Writing about it. Somehow trying to turn it into writing advice.)
It’s not just what characters say that counts. It’s what they do and how they do it also. If I’d perfectly pulled off those bro-shakes we’d have a completely different story, or at the very least, a different perception of me as a character. Look for these opportunities to inject extra…flavor? I dunno. I don’t have a good metaphor. into your stories.