The Handshake

Dillon and JuneAs soon as I sat down, I felt the weight of the week slipped off my shoulders. You know that feeling you get when you hand in your thesis, finish grading the last exam at the end of a long school year, or complete that contract.  It is as if you can finally relax. You can finally breathe. I was enjoying what felt like my first full breath of air in Honduras. It was the kind of breath that not only takes in oxygen, but also takes in your surroundings and solidifies the moment in your mind.

It was our last day in Honduras. My students were busy saying their goodbyes in Villa. I was sitting on the bench in front of Selma’s house watching the sun set behind the Ceiba tree and reflecting on the week. We had executed twenty-one micro-loans, successfully taught our four-day savings curriculum, and pushed a school bus out the mud. We had been going full tilt all week. No one had gotten sick and everyone was accounted for. By this time tomorrow, I thought to myself, we will be on the tarmac in Atlanta. I took another deep long breath. Then I saw him out of the corner of my eye.

He was two houses down on the other side of the dirt path. He was wagging his tail furiously. This was no ordinary every day “hello” wag of the tail. It was a full-body wag of the tail. Whoever he was waiting for had to be someone special. I was mesmerized. He would sit down, scoot up a couple of steps, stand-up, give a few wags of the tail and then sit back down. He had been repeating this pattern for a couple minutes when out of nowhere comes this little boy darting from behind the house. He could not have been older than four. He had no shorts, no shoes, no socks, and no diaper. He only wore two things and two things only: a tiny little t-shirt and one gigantic smile. Sprinting full speed, he leapt over open ditches like an antelope with his dog close on his heels. Both of them did their best to tackle their target. Their Dad. He had just come home from work with his lunch pail in his hand. They all embraced. With a pat on the head and a pet on the back, the little man and his dog retreated back along the path they had just sprinted.

I had just witnessed an amazing homecoming. It was a gift. I felt compelled to say hello. I walked over and reached out my hand. He reached out his. We looked each other in the eyes and our hands clasped. A thunderclap went off in my head. There it was. The handshake I had been waiting for. It was genuine. It was authentic. It felt like we were standing on common ground. It felt like we had successfully crossed the cultural, social and economic divides that separated us.

The handshake only lasted a few seconds. Its impact on me, however, has been long-lasting. In particular, it raised a question. What was it that separated this handshake from the handshakes I had with other members of the community?

A good handshake requires a firm grip, a look in the eyes and a smile. But, most importantly, it requires mutual respect. In that moment, he had everything I wanted. He had a little man to welcome him home like a hero and I was missing Dillon. He had a faithful dog and we had lost our dog (Junebugs) a year earlier. The loss was still smarting. It still smarts. As far as I was concerned, he was wealthiest man in world and I approached him in that manner. I gripped his hand firmly. I looked him in the eye and I smiled. All of my actions communicated respect.

Looking back, it was me. It was my approach, my attitude, my actions that separated this handshake from all the other handshakes. Some how, some way, whether I was aware of it or not, I was not always communicating respect to others. Yet, since that handshake three years ago, I have been consumed with understanding the conditions that allowed for that moment. A lot of it, maybe all of it, I believe is under our control.

Mutual respect requires two things – earning the respect of and giving respect to the person whose hand you are shaking. My students and I work to earn the respect of our clients and other community members by being honest and attentive, providing a good service, and exercising good listening skills. When it comes to instructing my students in these traits and skills, it’s not always easy but it is relatively straight forward. But, how do you prepare yourself and others in your organization with the willingness and ability to “give respect”? I believe part of it involves making them self-aware – aware of their power, their privileged, and how as wealthy outsiders we always win when we engage our clients. At least, this is where my efforts are focused now. But, this is only a partial solution. I am up for suggestions. Got any?

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

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