My final college class was a summer school course at the University of Texas-Austin. It was a Sociology class about deviance. One of our assignments was to observe deviant behavior and write a report. I chose to focus on the fact that I do not shake hands with women and record their reactions to it, and analyze the meaning of it all. I’ve edited this from the draft I turned in for typographical errors as well as to say things which the maximum word count did not let me explain.
Daniel Nehemiah Oliver
Sociology 366- Deviance
Professor Mark Stafford
I don’t shake hands with women. It’s awkward to refuse an outstretched arm and open hand, but I’m a Muslim, so I say “I’m a Muslim. I can’t shake hands with you but I have respect.” I openly admit that this is my interpretation of Islam, but I also insist that it is backed by evidence. To refuse to shake hands is deviant behavior. Everybody does it. To openly discriminate against women and act like it’s alright goes beyond deviance: it offends the basic notions of our modern society.
To get observations of reactions to deviant behavior (and to test my own personal resolve), I made arrangements to be hired by one of Austin’s IRS offices. Throughout the hiring process, orientation and work, I declined to shake hands with any woman I encountered, with the same line. I recorded my observations surreptitiously, mostly by memorizing them until I could transcribe them after the end of the workday. Here is my summary of their reactions:
- Indifference- 50%
Example: After arriving for an interview at the IRS, I met the liaison who was paging me. She reached out to shake hands, I delivered my line and she said “Fine that’s OK”.
- Annoyed acceptance- 20%
Example: I soon met the senior supervisor. When she reached out to shake hands and I explained, she drew her face, looking visibly upset, then withdrew her hand.
- Active Rejection- 10%
Example: A co-worker smiled in approval of my explanation, but then proceeded to step forward, reach out and grab my hand. I let her do it because I did not want the experiment to proceed into physical aggression.
- Passive Rejection- 10%
Example: I explained myself as above and the woman asked if we could do it “just once”. It was as if the norm could not be broken in her mind; no way a man can refuse to touch a woman, just because she’s a woman. I used a lot of smiles but didn’t make any moves forward, so the subject was more or less dropped.
- Debate- 10%
Example: One co-worker opened up a discussion with questions like:
“If you or I had gloves on, then could we shake hands?”
“What about hugs?”
“What if a woman is your relative? You can’t shake hands with your own mother?”
The last reaction type, “Debate”, was the most revealing to me. I already knew what not shaking hands with females meant to me, and that it was a deviant behavior. But it was important to know what it meant to them. Why was it deviant? How did they feel that deviant behavior should be dealt with.
From the debates I learned that the main issue was equality. To borrow from Goffman, equality is an identity norm, i.e.
everybody thinks everyone has to be equal. But does everybody define equality equally? Deep down, and not very deep, everyone knows that we are not equal*. The problem is all the connotations that inequality has: powerful/powerless, superiority/inferiority, deserving/undeserving, etc. Shaking hands is something that everybody does with everybody else. Regardless of age, health status, gender, sexuality, income level or any other factor, we all shake hands. It doesn’t really mean that we are equal, it is more like our agreement to refuse to acknowledge our inequalities. By shaking hands with you, I am ignoring all the things I notice about you, and you are ignoring all the things you notice about me. That’s what makes it a norm. We are not being equal, we are equalizing ourselves.
When someone breaks from that, when someone makes explicit the unspeakable, by acknowledging that there are differences, this is a deviance. This is a violation of a socio-psycho-emotional atmosphere that we’ve all been trained to maintain at all costs. It is an offense, a mockery, a crime. To deviate, knowing what deviance is, is a further outrage, because it is not a mistake. It is a calculated refutation of reality, a presentation of evidence that some realities are only thought to be real. Some truths are only relative. It says that everybody does not know that, you only think you do. True deviance, as opposed to crime or vulgarity, is a check and balance on pre-conceived notions. It regulates the level of institutionalization in a society, by making people think again about things that have been taken for granted for so long by so many that they haven’t been pondered over. That, I finally understand, is why we bother to study deviance. It is the reminder, however unwelcome, that there can be change, the insistence that there should be, and the example of how there could be.
After I’d collected enough observations, I quit.
*And is this really so wrong, to know and say that we are unequal? Take the benign example of green and red. Who will say that they are equal? Green is not red. Red is not green. They are both colors, but they are not equal. They are not identical, but does that stop them from being identified with each other? If we said that they were equal, that would only mean that we are not identifying them properly. Can the same not go with people?
Green is as different from red as red is different from green. They are equal in their inequality, or difference, to each other. They are equal, it seems to be implied, in their right to be different from each other. Green is somehow a defiance, a refutation, of red. It does not have to be red. Red does not need to be green.
But this does not mean some sort of superiority or privilege for one of the colors. Nor do differences and inequalities have to for people. These associations are unnecessary, arbitrary, slanderous politicizations with no inherent presence. Green can be better than red, if you’re painting a picture with grass. Red can be better than green, if you know that it will make a car stop when you need it to. And people are much the same. We are different. We are not equal. This makes us useful to each other and to the world we share. I don’t want who I am to be ignored. I don’t want to be thought of as you, even though I love you. Needs and circumstances make certain people better than others. They become more useful, more effective, more necessary. It is not treating all people the same that gives them their rights. A person more completely receives her or his right when his or her strengths are encouraged and weaknesses are covered.