I realized this morning that the handshake of peace has become for me the grimace of peace. The typical scenario these days is innocuous enough. The priest announces The Moment of Dread (Minute o’ Dread, TM?); eye contract is made with two to three people (husbands don’t count); they, seeing a very pregnant lady who is NOT extending her hand, do the smile-and-wave bit; I (hopefully) smile and raise my eyebrows back (if the brain happens to be at full engagement); and we all return to behaving like prayerful people instead of a herd of unmated twenty-nine-year-olds during the mixer session of a two-minute blind date.
But every now and then there’s someone who doesn’t get the idea. When it’s an elderly lady or gentleman, I’m always inclined to forgive them. Probably they’ve seen so many changes in manners and Masses since their youth that the idea of an obvious juvenile like myself being crotchety does not occur to them; and in any case, by this point they’ve earned the right to do as they please in Church, as long as it’s not horrendously disruptive. Furthermore, as everyone knows, older people take precedence in matters of handshaking. Besides, everyone above the age of sixty seems to become sentimental about babies, which probably lends women in my current state a status something between that of a second and third class relic (or maybe just a reliquary?).
So I can forgive the old people, usually. But I cannot find it in me to forgive the men—the MEN, I ask you—who somehow did not learn that the lady always initiates the handshake. Yes, even in the twenty-first century, even at Mass. The HoP is not some sacramental, whereby we bestow our awesomeness upon those Christians around us (reliquary jokes notwithstanding). It is a confusing, distracting faux-ritual that baffles visiting Protestants; and is more responsible for the spreading of elderflu than thirty-seven sneezes and a defective mouth-mask strung together. All the more reason for you, sir, not to assume that any lady, especially the Very Pregnant Lady, wants to feel your fingers (especially since she read Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked as a teen and has been traumatized by the thought of contracting the practically eradicated German Measles ever since). I understand that the HoP is a benighted attempt to make the Sacrifice of the Mass a kinder, friendlier, gentler place. Actually, it is probably responsible for more mutual irritation, preening, and artificial charity than anything since do-it-yourself Prayers of the Faithfilled. Trust me, you are not displaying your masculine sensitivity by attempting to press the fingers of unwilling demoiselles who for all you know may be viewing your extended palm with roughly the same eagerness as Rebecca viewed the hand of the dubious Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert.
But I digress. I promised guidance, not a rant. Here is Emily Post on the topic:
When gentlemen are introduced to each other they always shake hands.
When a gentleman is introduced to a lady, she sometimes puts out her hand—especially if he is some one she has long heard about from friends in common, but to an entire stranger she generally merely bows her head slightly and says: “How do you do!” Strictly speaking, it is always her place to offer her hand or not as she chooses, but if he puts out his hand, it is rude on her part to ignore it. Nothing could be more ill-bred than to treat curtly any overture made in spontaneous friendliness. No thoroughbred lady would ever refuse to shake any hand that is honorable, not even the hand of a coal heaver at the risk of her fresh white glove. [italics added]
I note, by the way, that the modern Emily Post website has abandoned the lady’s first rule. Barbarians. I am pleased to see that not everyone in the comments agrees.
Post Script: Reader, I did shake his hand. What else was I supposed to do, when even the Emily Post of 1922 would have had me do so? But I realized, as my eyes returned to the altar, meeting those of several smiling, friendly, distant wavers across the sea of empty early morning pews, that I was grimacing back at them, poor fish. Hopefully they assumed it was just heartburn, and not any actual lack of goodwill towards men. Well, except for you, Sir Brian.