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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Handshake

How many people have observed guys give each other that handshake?

Can I get a show of hands? Kidding.

You know what I mean by that handshake though - not the standard, traditional firm grip with one or two shakes. I'm talking the light slap of palms, the gladiator grip, and the ending with a flourish, maybe a finger snap or two.

Back in the day they called it "dap." And I once wrote on another blog in another life that "Dap is that coolest of handshakes. It's the urban greeting that says 'I could just grip your hand squeeze and shake twice, but you and I have an understanding, so I am going to throw some 'English' on this handshake and jazz it up a little, as a sign of our friendship and mutual respect." That's right. That handshake.

I ask about that handshake, because last week on the way from the newsroom to the cafeteria, I bumped into a guy on the escalator who I see from time to time. Usually it's on the way downstairs or on the way up, and usually we either stand in silence or chat about weather, sports, etc. But I don't know the guy. I don't even know his first name. We're not close.

So when he tried to give me dap on the escalator I wasn't comfortable with it.

Laugh if you want. I know it's not like a guy trying to kiss a girl he just met. But dap is a personal handshake, not to be traded without forethought.

And to give dap to just anyone is a violation of the Cowboy Code, which says dap is reserved for your closest of buddies or those guys who may not be buddies but who have earned your utmost respect. If you come across a guy you don't know well or at all, then a standard, traditional grip and two shakes will suffice.

When I countered escalator guy's dap jab and parried with a traditional handshake, he got exasperated and shuffled off mumbling.

Seriously, a handshake is no big deal. It's a friendly gesture. But offering up that handshake to a guy is almost as presumptuous as trying to kiss a girl before you've even asked her out.

A little history

Yes, waaaaaay back in the day that handshake was a black thing. There, I said it.

It was one of those ways that black men who felt all alone while trying to integrate themselves into predominantly white workplaces and social settings, and society in general, had to bond, to establish a camaraderie. In a crowd of white people in the 1950s, for example, two black men who spotted each other might have exchanged that handshake. But even then it was never so much about separating oneself from the group. Rather it was a way for two men of similar backgrounds and experiences to silently say "I don't necessarily know you, but I'll bet we have similar experiences. And therefore I understand you." It was a comforting gesture.

But then things changed in popular culture. Through the 1970s and into the '80s it became more acceptable to not just observe and/or admire another group's mannerisms. It became OK to engage in whatever interested you - activities and interests that had been deemed specifically "white" or "black" became fair game for whoever wanted to try 'em.

At that point race was no longer of major importance with that handshake. It became more about guys of all stripes silently saying "We're cool with one another. We're close friends. We're at least close enough that we share mutual respect."

So back to escalator guy. I don't dislike him. I don't lack respect for him. I just don't know him. And until I do, he gets a firm grip and two shakes, but no dap.


  • Interesting, you wouldnt properly shake an african-american hand. Interesting?

    By Anonymous the self-loathing right wing miami cuban piglet, at 7:34 PM  

  • It should come as no surprise if you're a bit younger. Every now and then, on campus I'll meet some young erm...homie (?) from high school who'll do just that.

    I just go along with it.

    By Anonymous phil, at 7:39 PM  

  • Huh? OK Self-loathing, you have to explain this one. Seriously. I'm not trying to debate you this time. I really would like to know what constitutes a proper handshake for an African American?

    And BTW, you asked for examples in your last response of you calling names. You referred to me several times as redneck.

    While I find that hilarious, forgive me for asking if you saw my picture before deciding "redneck" would be a good description of me?

    And please educate me, since my tech knowledge is limited. You started the "blogosphere?" No charge for correcting your spelling. Politics aside, that's a pretty impressive resume item. I wonder if Al Gore knows about you, since he created the Internet.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:04 PM  

  • Interesting Phil. I have to confess to allowing exceptions to the no-dap-if-I-don't-know-you rule. Like I said in the post if it's someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for - whether I personally know them or not - who tries to give me dap I'll engage.

    For example, I was at a writer's convention a few years ago and one of the speakers turned out to be an old-school journalist I've admired since college. When I went through the receiving line after his speech I was ecstatic. I was finally going to meet the man. So with a stupid giddy grin on my face I held out my hand, and he grabbed it, smiled right back, called me "young blood," which I got a kick out of 'cause my uncle used to call me that, and proceeded to go through the steps of a good dap handshake.

    Did I object? No way.

    So I guess there are exceptions.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:17 PM  

  • Me, I'm just a big cracker. Thqat much choreography confuses me.

    By Anonymous og, at 10:36 PM  

  • Hey, great post. Here in Brazil, at least in Rio where I live this handshake is very common, and it is exactly what you described - "We're cool with one another."

    And we definitely don't give it away to strangers - with the "right" people, it's almost automatic really. You did a very good job of explaining it.

    I laughed so much when it was referred to as the "terrorist jab" - Brazilians would certainly be in the axis of evil then!

    BTW, it may be so in America, but here it has nothing whatsoever to do with race or ethnicity. Just my 2 Reais, heh.

    By Blogger ShamRock, at 6:48 PM  

  • This is not the history of the "Brother Shake" during the 1840 abolitionists where helping Blacks move from south to north on the underground railroads. Black who would pretend to help other blacks but would retirn them to slave catchers were called "Sell outs". Harrriet Tubman created ways for the whites and Blacks to help run away slaves when they would show up in towns. White Men would tug on their right ears and the Blacks would follow them to safety to get food and be hid until mid-night. The sell outs where very dangerous. so a handshake based on "Reflexes"... was created so it would flow....and be covered in the end with a hug......I cannot believe the story I'm responding to.......Black people don't even know their own history.

    By Blogger Michael Mickman Gourdine, at 12:38 AM  

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