There are yet more disgusted people in Tunbridge Wells. Parents at one of the boys’ grammar schools have ‘voiced concerns’ after its new head, Amanda Simpson, introduced a policy that pupils will shake hands with their teacher at the start of every lesson. One of the proud mothers of the town’s academic high-flyers is so afraid about an increase in the ‘spread of germs’ this winter that she has declared herself to be especially interested in keeping watch for an early appearance of norovirus. Apparently even the educators themselves, who are to be involved in up to 150 handshakes daily, are not entirely happy either, fearing the traditional greeting ritual will erode lesson time.
Lord help us. If you’re not getting it from the kids, you’re getting it from the parents, and if you’re not getting it from the parents you’re getting it from colleagues. Amanda Simpson sounds like the kind of person we should all be grateful that the profession has managed to hang on to. She has brought in an entirely reasonable routine that is essentially just further down the spectrum of ‘feet off desks’ and ‘chewing gum in the bin’. She has defended the ‘handshake and a smile’ as something to make the young men ‘feel welcome and appreciated’, adding there has been no negative reaction from the pupils. As regards health, there will now be more hand sanitisers across the site.
Teaching a child to shake hands is for some of us right up there with learning how to use a knife and fork and putting a hand to your mouth when yawning or coughing. It’s not about cultural traditions (though they’re not automatically to be dumped), it’s about a body-language gesture that at the very least suggests there is no hostility. Of course, it should also be more than this. As a traditional way of greeting it signals above all, in a context of physical proximity, a friendly willingness to engage with another person in an atmosphere of mutual respect. What’s not to like? Especially in a school, where the community is young and healthy, rather than in a hospital or care home where this is not the case.
Is it not now a truth universally acknowledged that soft skills are where it’s increasingly at? We’re living more and more in an era when pretty much all young people have impressive grades, and those who don’t are still hot when it comes to doing whatever is necessary with a screen and a keyboard. That’s a given. What we need are young people emerging from more than a decade of schooling who are comfortable with making eye contact, looking at another face in the real rather than the virtual world, smiling as they say hello, introducing themselves, speaking, making small talk if necessary (important, this one) and performing that ultimately comfortable little physical convention that breaks the ice, the handshake.
When I was first in the world of work I’d frequently be at conferences where I’d have to walk up to groups of middle-aged men in suits and ties and introduce myself. The one thing that really gave confidence to a young journalist conducting an interview with a CEO was that at least I knew how it would start. It would start with a handshake and then what would come naturally afterwards: the smile, the introductions, the small talk maybe, the usual opening pleasantries. And then all would be fine. It needs saying also that for a twentysomething woman in those days, when there were fewer women in management positions, that the handshake on greeting was a way of signalling not only trust and respect, but also that you as a young woman were confident and competent enough to know that a (good) handshake was a good foot (so to speak) to get off on.
It goes without saying that a rubbish handshake, as in knuckle crusher or wet fish, is not a brilliant start, but thanks to Amanda Simpson at least there’ll soon be more young men emerging from this part of West Kent who know how to shake hands on greeting. In the words of E M Forster, ‘Only connect’. He was educated down the road at Tonbridge, the famous public school where hand-shaking certainly continues. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if we could have a roll-out of this traditional greeting that went beyond the fee-paying and the grammar schools? After all, everybody should have a chance to join the hand-shaking classes, especially given what is without doubt a crisis in social mobility. Learning how to shake someone’s hand won’t solve that problem, but it’d be a good start. Precisely what a handshake should be.