It’s not my height. It’s not the size of my hands. It’s not the scars on my chest either. Something that comes naturally to pretty much every western natal male seems to be, quite literally, beyond my grasp.
It’s my inability to convincingly bro shake.
The funny thing is, it’s something I never gave much thought before my transition. As a woman, you’ve got two easy options: you just shake hands, or you hug. You shake hands with men the same way you do with women. You hug men the same way you do women. Now, even three years into my transition, physical interaction with men is still the thing that comes least naturally to me, having been socialised as female for over thirty years.
I never had to think twice about saying hello or goodbye to a group of people, either. These days, the conscious effort involved in what is, for most people, a simple and unconscious process, always discombobulates me. Inner dialogue: “Man – firm handshake, another man – firm handshake, ooh, now a woman – ease off! Remember, softer hand shake. Good male friend – hug, slap! slap! on the back, good female friend – soft gentle hug” and quite often I do stuff it up. After I’ve hug, slap, slapped a couple of guy friends, I’ll accidentally hug slap, slap a girl friend, who then wonders why I’m suddenly manhandling her. But that’s not the worst of it.
My kryptonite, of course, is when the guys raise their hands in anticipation of a bro shake. When I see that coming I’m like a deer in the headlights… I simply cannot pull this off naturally. Seriously! I’ve workshopped the sequence again and again with sympathetic male friends eager to give me a hand. In our dry runs it’s absolutely fine, and I even get that satisfying “pop!” as our palms connect, but when it comes to the moment of truth, it never happens smoothly. I fixate on the hand rather than the face – afraid I’ll miss if I don’t – and yes, I have actually missed. When the palms do connect, it’s usually with an awkward, dull thud. And I never know just how to let go… Do you just slide your hands apart? Give a little flick? End with a fist bump? Morph into the more familiar territory of the hug-slap-slap? HOW do men do this so naturally and organically??
Just look at how smoothly and effortlessly presidents engage in a bro shake!
I used to feel like I understood interacting with men. Socially, physically, I knew what I was doing. Granted, I’ve never been sexually interested in men, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never used the fact that I was, at least physically, a woman, to get my way with men. It’s not that I ever overtly or consciously flirted with them, more that I found I could get them to do what I wanted, just through a gentle touch on the shoulder, for instance. I can’t do that any more.
And it’s these social observations that have intrigued and discombobulated me the most as I go through this process. We learn so many unspoken, unconscious rules about social and physical engagement throughout our lives, but we never tend to consider how it would be to start from the beginning again. Just like when we’re immersed in a new language and grasping for the basics, we’ve got to start from scratch when the world begins to perceive and interact with us as a different gender.
Many of us speak more than one language, and the cultural and human insights we gain from being bi- or tri-lingual are absolutely invaluable. Very few of us have been in the position of having to learn two gender languages, but the cultural and human insights this offers are actually very similar. Our world becomes that much more nuanced.
When you learn a new language, you don’t have to forsake, forget or unlearn your first language. I find the same applies when learning a new gender language. Perhaps, with time, I will start to get rusty in the past participles and irregular verbs of interacting as a woman, whilst becoming ever more fluent expressing myself in this second language. But I think, realistically, I will always speak in an accent that the majority of people can’t quite place…
I’ve fully embraced the fact that I am a uniquely hybrid creature; a male with a female history, a German who sounds very much like an Australian living in the United States, speaking multiple languages, more fluent in some than in others. And I’m very much still learning…
It’s an interesting life indeed.