Your right hand goes forward -- easy enough. His right hand parries. But ... someone has to make a decision at this point. Someone has to take control. There's a split second of confusion. Your eyes dart to your counterpart's hands. Has he already made his move? Or should you be the one to take the initiative? Either way, there are more decisions to be made.
Will it be your grandfather's method: right extended straight, parallel to the ground, a few inches above waist high? Or is it perhaps your dad's '70s shake: arm half-extended like you're about to go one-on-one in an over-the-top arm wrestling face-off?
Or maybe it's a blast from the past -- the high-five or the gimme 10. Perhaps even the fisted version of the old gimme five. Maybe, for sentimental A's fans, you move in for a forearm bash.
There's no manual. It's daily improv and, because no man would ever EVER talk about it, it often ends up being one of the most awkward moments of a man's daily routine.
The Man Greeting.
And it's awkward enough between two men of the same subcultures or background. Mix ethnicities and nine times out of 10, someone's going to walk away feeling foolish and very, very uncool.
Does a white guy go old-school, 1970s, three-pronged soul shake, knowing that there's a possibility it'll backfire as the black guy comes back with the outstretched fist? So you change up midstride, moving toward the fist-five, only to have him go NBA half-hug chest bump?
Can't someone make a law, or print a chart? Can't they teach this in school?
Why do we even do this at all?
Because men touching seems to be a necessary reinforcement of our acknowledging each other in the brotherhood of men. Women hug, peck, blow kisses, squeal and talk about each other's shoes -- whatever. None of that would be good for men. Either we try some sort of handshake, or we get out the hunting knives, slice open our hands and handclasp in each other's blood. Or something.
Just whatever you do, don't EVER try replicating the world's worst man-greeting ever: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's "We're playing nonsynchronized Twister while praying to the Virgin Mary and acting like rabid collies" embrace while celebrating McGwire's home run record.
We need someone to untangle this mess, and pronto. I enlisted Times NBA writer Marcus Thompson, a very cool guy with whom I'm friendly. And with whom I shake hands. And with whom I've had a couple of these moments. And, as Marcus is black and hangs out with NBA players, and I am white and mostly hang out with my 5-year-old daughter, he could probably help.
Marcus and I decided to experiment with the handshake choices to see what works best, and why.
The Ward Cleaver Shake -- This has to be straight-armed, no-frilled and firm. The firmer the better, to convey the manly impression that you don't watch Shirley MacLaine movies and likely have a small piece of steak lodged somewhere in your teeth. This is the formal handshake used in professional situations, especially with people one doesn't know. The execution is easy, as Marcus and I are both serious, extremely dedicated professionals.
The Fist Bump -- This is an informal greeting, which can possibly be used comfortably with people you don't know too well. Or if you're in a hurry. Basically, you put your fist out in front of you horizontally, and bump knuckles with your counterpart. Not too hard. Unless you just discovered your counterpart is sleeping with your wife. In that case, pull back at the last moment and redirect said fist into your counterpart's face, also known as "Fist Bump to Nose Bump to Bloody Pulp." Then repeat a couple of more times.
The '70s Soul Shake -- This was big when I was a kid, and we handle it perfectly. However, Marcus alerts me to something of which I wasn't aware. I'm actually not legally allowed to perform this handshake, as my ancestors are from Europe and were really, really white. Marcus says this is restricted to black guys who are friends. Dang. And I do it so well ...
The Fist Pound -- This gets a little dicey. The Pound is your basic "gimme five," only with vertical fists. This greeting is used between guys who know each other a bit better than Fist Bumpers. Once the fist comes out, there's confusion over whether it's the Pound or the Bump. And whose fist goes up top first? Is that an indicator of which participant is more of an Alpha male? I give in, lying on my back and letting Marcus scratch my belly.
The Pull Half-Hug -- This we performed adequately. You see this a lot among men who are pretty close. Or hip celebrities who like to pretend they're close. You come in with the initial 45-degree angle of the Soul Shake and have the option to finish the entire Soul Shake or just stop at the first move. Either way, you then pull your counterpart in for a half-hug shoulder bump with the option of the two-pat on your friend's back, only to retreat quickly before things get out of hand. Someone in the newsroom says the two firm pats are required to convey that you aren't attracted to your counterpart. Or any other man. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The Full Man Hug -- This, of course, is reserved for only the closest of friends and relatives. It's important to make your intentions known early by spreading arms wide, so you're not left hanging. There's nothing worse than going in for a Full Man Hug only to find that your counterpart is going the Ward Cleaver route. And for the love of all that's holy, make it obvious which side your head is going toward, or an outsider may think you're kissing. You may even touch faces, which is an awful, tragic thing. This isn't Europe.
Marcus and I handled this fairly well after a bit of practice. But I remember that day a friend and I once opted for the same side at my grandpa's funeral, nearly touching faces and setting off loud nervous laughter, which my grieving grandmother certainly didn't appreciate. And remember the two-pat, quick-release. You need that two-pat, or someone might think you're more than good friends. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Tony Hicks is the Times' pop culture and music critic. Reach him at 925-952-2678 or firstname.lastname@example.org.