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Shaking hands with Jane Goodall

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 2, 2007 08:07 AM

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The Genova Festival della Scienza was quite a wonder. Mr. Improbable has never spoken in a room so grand as this before:


... nor, I imagine, have the words "homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck" ever rung across that august hall before. And the organizing certainly gave the lie to any stereotypes of Italian lack of facility in such matters. The Festival wasn't an ordinary science conference, but was tightly integrated into the Genovese community and open to the public, with many events for children, families, and schools.

A particularly nice thing that the organizers did was to persuade wealthy Genovese families to host informal dinner parties, every night, for the speakers. The hosts would invite some of their own friends and colleagues as well as the visiting scientists and journalists, so locals got to meet interesting foreigners and foreigners got to meet interesting locals.

And I got to meet Jane Goodall. Anyone who remembers my sadness when Alex the grey parrot died knows that people who do scientifically solid, non-exploitative research with (not on) animals are very, very high on Miss Conduct's list of Good People. So, Jane Goodall! And she is small and charismatic and very, very beautiful. Photographs don't do her justice.

We spoke for a bit and then got whisked away from each other, as happens at interesting parties. And then she was leaving and I went to say goodbye, and took her hand and said what an honor it was to have met her.

And she said, "You're pushing me away."
"My hand. You're pushing me away."

I looked down, and sure enough, I was pushing her hand down and sort of back toward her. (Of course she was right. I'm a primate and she was analyzing my social behavior. It's not the kind of thing Jane Goodall is going to get wrong, is it?)

I sort of "erm"-ed about that a bit, because it hadn't really occurred to me that I was doing that, and she laughed and said, "Well, at least you don't shake hands like this," and demonstrated a sort of French-inflected handshake style. Which, in fact, I do use a lot, but I sure as hell wasn't going to say anything at that point. Then she said, "In my research group, we just do like the chimps do." Then she hugged me while making a rather loud, panting, "Hoo-hoo-hoo" sound.

If she can get chimp colonies and grant-funding agencies as simultaneously charmed and disconcerted as she had me that night, Jane Goodall must be the most powerful woman in the world.

I spent a lot of time afterward thinking about my handshake style. In a business context, or most ordinary friendly ones, I do the French-inflected two-pump and let go. (Though I might rethink my grip. According to Jane, that style can hurt people who have delicate or arthritic hands.) But in my "you mean something to me" handshake, as opposed to the "nice to do business with you" handshake, I hang on a bit longer. Sometimes I hold on with both hands, but I think that night I must have had something in my left hand that I couldn't easily put down--a cocktail or a bambino or some such. I hold on, but I sort of give the person's hand back to them while I do it. It's not meant as pushing them away, it's meant as "I realize that you are your own person and there is no reason for me to mean anything to you, as you do to me, and I am not a stalker and I do intend to let go of your hand quite soon now." A gesture of humility, not rejection. The fact that they can look so much like each other either says something deep about my psyche or is, more likely, tribute to just how much of a Bostonian this Kansas girl has become.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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