The Silly Basics

The Big Seminar was a huge success, of course. One of those seminal events that will be talked about for some time to come, and used as a reference when talking about how other events compare.

Armand Morin deserves congratulations. I had fun, and I did business there, as planned. It was a success on all fronts — even the “fun” part.

I didn’t talk myself hoarse, but I did smile myself numb — literally felt my jaw start to cramp up. I work alone most of the time, you see. You don’t have to smile so much when there’s no one else in the room — when I do smile during the workday, it’s usually at the dogs. They just wag their tails and go back to sleep.

Seems more efficient, somehow.

Had my hand shaken a lot, too, at the event. Strong grips, weak grips, damp grips, confused soul-shake grips, crushing vices. Why do some guys feel they have to hear bones cracking when greeting someone? I’m a big fan of a nice, brief, firm handshake that skips the “I could crush your phallanges” Tweak Of Doom.

But the handshake is one of those cultural expectations that isn’t taught to anyone anymore — too many folks muddle through them, or try to avoid them, and hope they did the right thing without ever knowing for sure. And yet, so many people (especially in business) place a silly amount of significance on a handshake that you MUST figure out your own style, or start out every meeting awkwardly.

If you are confused, stop fussing. Offer your hand, grip the other person’s offered paw gently but with the purpose of a short, non-threatening squeeze-and-shake, and pull away. Smile and look ’em in the eye. Nothing more needs to be done. If you’re presented with an alternative kind of handshake, take it as a sign that you’ve been identified as cool enough to accept it. If you don’t know the particulars of that shake, find some way to give your gentle but firm squeeze, and pull back, smiling. And say, clearly, how good it is to meet them, or see them again, and get on with the conversation. Never obsess on the awkwardness of any botched shake, or even show evidence that you noticed.

That’s the sign of confidence other people are looking for. A comfort in your own skin, especially when confronted with something unfamiliar or awkward. Take it in stride, stay focused on what’s important — the sharing of recognition and the pressing flesh — and move on.

I say this, because I keep coming across younger people who increasingly are just helpless during what should be a two-second gesture of formality. They don’t know what to do. They’re self-conscious. Or, they insist on performing shake rituals they picked up from music videos, involving fringe culture niches of which they have no connection with whatsoever.

If you aren’t a pimp, don’t try to shake hands like one.

I feel for them. My generation rebelled, loudly and obnoxiously, against anything seen as being too “Establishment” oriented… and the siimple handshake ritual was a casualty. I’m glad most of us have moved past the nonsense of trying to come up with something “different” or more “meaningful” — like the group hug — and have just gone back to a brief but firm grip-‘n’-shake with a smile. Bam, bam, and you’re done and moving on with whatever it is that brought you to this point, standing there grinning expectantly at someone.

There was a great story I read a few years ago, about a guy who took the time to teach some inner city kids how to play chess very, very well. They, in fact, earned an invitation to Washington, D.C., to play in a tournament… something this guy thought the kids would be happy about. But they weren’t. Instead, they acted up, insisted they had no intention of going anywhere, and spewed venom on the very idea that any stupid tournament was a worthwhile thing to be involved with.

It took him a while, but this guy slowly realized that what seemed to be bravado was really just stark fear. These kids had never been outside the city. Never been in an airport, let alone been inside a plane. They didn’t know what was expected of them, didn’t know how to behave, didn’t know the rituals, and were scared… but their code of honor wouldn’t allow them to say so.

So he did some basic desensitizing work, slowly. First, he had them look up D.C. on a map. Showed some videos of both the city… and of people taking plane trips. Eventually, he took them all down to the airport for a tour. Found someone to open up a jet, and let them look around. By the time the trip came up, the kids were not doing anything new anymore — they’d either studied, seen, or been in most of the places they had to get through to arrive at the tournament. Even practiced dressing in a way that made them feel like they belonged, yet still showed a bit of personal style.

So, at the event, they walked in not wearing a jacket and tie for the first time, and they smiled and shook hands like they’d been doing it all their lives.

They acted like they belonged, because the details were no longer a big stupid mystery… but merely a series of silly rituals that had been explained and practiced. No big deal.

They did well at the tournament, too. In effect, they marched in, took their seat at the big damn feast that life offers, and partook, heartily.

Good for them.

And shame on the rest of us for allowing such simple rituals and basic knowledge of details to separate us from each other.

Right now, whole generations are trying to get through life without saying “please” and “thank you”. By not saying these simple phrases, they are seen as rude, and people get offended, and all sorts of stereotypes are reinforced and all sorts of hostility comes bubbling up.

I’m not a culture warrior. I think you should be able to do your thing as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm anyone or harsh my mellow. If you wanna pretend you’re a gangster, go for it. I pretended for years I was some version of a lost, romantic poet/musician rogue, too hip for living in The Man’s world.

I know the drill.

However, when and if you’re ready to join the rest of us, get your basics down. Say please and thanks, and don’t make a big deal about shaking someone’s hand. It’s not a social or political statement. It’s just the details of meet-and-greet and getting to the next stage of whatever it is you’re attempting to accomplish.

You can still be the hero of your own private counter-cultural drama.

Hell, I still am.

In fact, one of my longterm goals is to show that you can be hip, and cool, and have fun… and still participate in the grand game of capitalism (yes, even without being in the music biz).

The worst realization I ever had as a young man was the thought that, as an adult, I had to give up enjoying life.

It was bullshit, but it was also the message most of the adult world was sending out. Gotta get serious. Get a haircut, get a job, get your ass into the mine and start hauling coal. (Sorry — I was channeling Tennessee Ernie Ford there for a second.)

You don’t have to give up your personality, or your lust for life, just because you’ve decided to get after the American Dream. That dream can — and should — be whatever appeals to you. Not what anyone else tells you it should be.

You will know the good ones by their laughter.

Yes, some of us have retained our skills at having fun, even as we go deep into the business world.

Good God, there are so many important things to worry about, other than whether wearing a tie and jacket means you’re “selling out” or not.

Please — stop fighting tradition. It won’t bite you.

And thanks for stopping by.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

Just enter your name and primary email address below and we'll send you the new report right away.

"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • DanO says:


    As a fellow blog-runner, I know that never getting any comments ever is a bummer. So, here I’m to provide proof of activity AND a relevant comment.

    The best advice I’ve ever seen on making sure you don’t screw up a handshake is this:

    Before a handshake, open up your hand as wide as possible.

    That’s it. Just act like you’re OJ Simpson trying on a bloody glove and you’ll have a great handshake.

    It seems odd at first and you feel like people are going to react like you’re going to slap them, but they don’t even notice.

    And it works. Every single time.


  • Ray says:


    I needed that. Thank you.


  • Valerie says:


    I gotta say that is about the BEST advice I have seen in a LOOONG time.

    So many people pin so much bullshit meaning to the handshake that they just DON’T do it. Another thing that is a tragedy is that they judge a handshake using their own screwed up standards and forget that people come from so many different cultures where the etiquette of a handshake may be different. One thing I had to learn when working with the Native American community was that women are supposed to be “weak”, meaning that a woman’s handshake is supposed to be female… not a super-grip to break the hand, but a VERY brief fingertip clasp and go, almost fleeting.

    So, people, don’t judge ability by a handshake. The person you are meeting may just be from a culture that has a different etiquette. And, don’t feel that you have to change your style just because you may be in the “big bad business world”. Be yourself, do what feels right and SMILE. A genuine smile will almost always make any mistake go unnoticed. If you fake it, it will show and turn people the other way.


  • Andrew says:


    When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to shake hands. He’d say, “Make it firm and confident.” That was it. And it really made sense.

    And of course as I grew older, (this was the 70’s), I learned all the ‘cool’ handshakes as well. You know the ones. Full hand wrap-around and then bump shoulder’s and all. Yeah, right on. The list goes on and on. But I always preferred the simple ‘firm and confident’ and as you say, don’t make it too long.

    Then as time passed and I began to travel, made it down to the Caribbean and met a lot of Jamaican’s. Now that’s a whole different thing all together. One blood and the whole jerk-chicken. A lot of fist bumpin’ goin’ on. And that’s really a cultural thing. And once again, that was cool and all, but I still returned to the ‘firm and confident’ style every time. Nothing else says it as well. It shows a simpleness and a confidence with no pretention involved. I guess you could call it the ‘KISS’ principle of handshaking. And as in all things in life, keeping it simple seems to work everytime.

    Anyway, that’s my take on it. And thanks again for the blog. I look forward to every post you make. Keeps me grounded.

    Regards, Andrew

  • Across says:

    […] whom I’ve learned much at all seems to be a curmudgeonly sort of Web-marketing consultant: in a blog post in 2005, he even makes passing reference to his younger days as a self-styled “lost, romantic […]

  • >