Hands Off! Confessions of a (Rational) Germaphobe

As most of you who know me well know, I am a germaphobe. If you know me in a business setting, you know to fist bump me before the meeting. Never ever shake my hand. In fact, handshaking is the most ridiculous western custom I can think of. The handshake originated back when everyone carried a gun and everyone was forced to be right-handed. By shaking hands, you were demonstrating to the person you just met that your gun was not drawn. Memo from Bruce to the World: I AM NOT CARRYING A GUN.  There, no more need to ever shake my hand. If I decide to carry a gun and especially if I decide to draw it when I meet people at business meetings, I promise to let you all know so we can bring back the handshake. For now, keep your germ-infested hands to yourself.

 I’m not even the slightest bit apologetic about my germaphobia and, believe me, I take a lot of crap for it. After the exchange of the Peace at church on Sunday, I immediately Purell (yes, it is a verb). My kids invariably say to me, “Da-ad, everyone can totally smell your Purell.” Like I care, as long as it keeps me safe from the viruses running around the pews on Sunday.

Interestingly, it turns out that germaphobia is, itself, contagious. I have two co-workers who are equally germaphobic (though one of them is an “irrational germaphobe” whereas I am a “rational germaphobe” – more on that later). We hired a new guy about 3 years ago and the four of us hang out and travel a lot together. The first time he saw the Purell bottles coming out before dinner, he gave us a bunch of shit. But, within six months, he was sticking his hand out haltingly, but clearly indicating “please share your Purell with me.” I knew we had him. Six months after that he was carrying his own Purell.

Why do I bring this up now? Because I’m dying. Well, maybe not literally, but it is possible and it is the desired outcome. I’m not sure if I have a really really bad cold or the flu, but whatever it is, I’m friggin’ miserable. Can’t breath. Can’t sleep. Head is pounding. Nose is running. Fever. Chills. You name it, I got it. Basically, I’m just one big pathetic ball of snot. Sorry, was that too visual? Just trying to help you get the image and, just for a moment, share my misery and, through that, come to understand my germaphobia better.

In fact, therein lies the concept of the rational germaphobe. I’m a germaphobe because I hate being sick. I mean I really, really hate this feeling. Some of you might be thinking, “buck up, Bruce, you got a cold, not meningitis.” And, perhaps you’re right, but I’d trade whatever I have for meningitis in a heartbeat because meningitis is often fatal, which I am convinced is my best possible outcome right now. Often, when people see me whip out the Purell after a wave of handshaking at a board meeting, they’ll remark snidely, “oh, you’re like Howie Mandell, all OCD about cleanliness.” Folks, if you’ve ever touched any part of my life, you will attest to the fact that I am not OCD. I offer up this picture of my home office as evidence. Does this look like the office of an anal OCD guy? No, it’s the office of a perfectly normal guy who’s a big baby about getting sick.

Seriously - is this the office of an OCD guy. Note the two bottles of Purell on the corner of the desk. That was not intentional!

OK, so what is an irrational germaphobe. One of my aforementioned germaphobic colleagues told me the following story (note: we often trade tales of woe of getting stuck on an airplane next to some dude who, by all rights, should be in the ICU, but has opted to fly to Boston instead).  In fact, I have to digress for a moment because I just remembered the time I was flying home from Miami and the woman next to me had a thread of used dental floss hanging out of the seat pocket in front of her. Don’t believe me? See the picture.

Note the strand of used dental floss hanging from this woman's purse. How can I ever get on a plane again?

Anyway, my colleague came into work on Monday all excited to share his germaphobic story with his fellow germaphobe (me) and it went like this. He has two small kids and he and his wife took them to a park that had a pond with ducks. They were feeding the ducks at the pond before retreating to the picnic table to eat their own lunch. He unwrapped his sandwich and just as he was about to dig in, he looked down and noticed that a couple of ducks were standing a few feet away staring at his sandwich. Not nibbling at his sandwich. Not spitting on it (can ducks spit?). Just staring at it. Upon which, his wife said to him, “you’re not going to be able to eat that sandwich, are you?” He reported answering her with “not a chance” and tossing the sandwich into the trash (why didn’t he give it to the ducks?). Totally irrational. No way he ends up sick in bed for 3 days like I’ve been this week because a goddam duck gave his PB&J the evil eye. Now, if one of his snot-nosed kids had run up and put his grubby hands on the sandwich, we have a very different situation on our hands (so to speak). At the conclusion of his story, I said, “dude, you have a problem” and walked out of his office. Irrational.

By now, I’m sure you understand the clear differences between the irrational germaphobe and the more rational version and can fully appreciate that I am the latter. I would imagine your only remaining unease might be that you feel you need to connect with me when we get together, perhaps even physically. And, in case I haven’t made myself abundantly clear, keep your filthy hands off of me.

Fortunately, we have numerous options in this regard. Women – this is easy. Give me a hug. If appropriate, a kiss is OK too. Cheek please. Some of you may be thinking, “whoa, he’s lost his mind. He’s not willing to shake hands from 3 feet away, but he’ll let some gal come in for the hug.” Again, folks, it’s rational germaphobia. You get me sick because your snot-nosed kid handed you her little toy that she had her snotty hands on before you left the house and you didn’t wash your hands. You shake my hand, I rub my eyes and, boom, I got your kid’s disease. The hug protects me much better.

Guys – hug me too. My buddy Matt always hugs me. Aside from making me feel all Mafioso, it tells me he really cares about me and missed me.  My pal Dave hugs me too, but is more comfortable with the “man hug” where you shake hands first, then come in for the hug. Sorry, no good. That’s going to send me screaming to the Purell. Guys – no kisses, please.

Guys and gals not comfortable with hugging – we still got lots of options. My favorite is the bow. Why we Westerners haven’t adopted this custom is beyond me. We show each other respect without sharing viruses. If you feel goofy with the bow, I’m OK with the fist bump. It’s not ideal, of course, because we’re making skin-to-skin/hand-to-hand contact, but it’s the back of our knuckles and it’s quick. The risk level is higher than the hug and demonstrably higher than the bow, but I’m willing to live with it. The subtle “hip wave” is OK too. Even a slight nod, if combined with a smile, as if to say, “hey, dude, good to see you.” I encourage you to consider the “forearm bash.” One of my CEOs uses this at his board meetings and it’s very effective.

I hope that helps for now because I have to stop. It’s time to crawl back into bed and suffer some more.

About Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is an amateur writer and professional provocateur
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11 Responses to Hands Off! Confessions of a (Rational) Germaphobe

  1. Tim says:

    Being unable to shake hands, I use the “quad nod.” Perhaps you’ve developed the “bug hug?”

  2. Dan Grabois says:

    Our grandmother used to say that eating a spoonful of dirt a day keeps your immune system healthy. Food for thought.

    • Dan – that is sagely advice…..for a 5 year old. Of course we all need to build up our immunity and the only way to do that is to get sick a whole bunch. When my kids were little, I got like 9 viruses per year. It’s what turned me into a germaphone in the first place. I quite confident that I’ve built up all the antibodies I need to ride out this life. The proof is in the pudding. This is my first virus in over 3 years. Then again, that’s probably why I’m sooooo miserable with it!

  3. Jules says:

    So….I have had shingles twice this year…will you still hug me?

    As a former drug rep, I touched every dirty door knob in the city. This was pre-Purell. My immune system was stellar then!
    Also, I do recall that your microwave was just plain nasty when we all lived in Newark. I am guessing the vast amounts of alcohol took care of the worries of that nastiness? 🙂

  4. @ Dan – I’m with you. I figure all the meals I ate at food stalls in Taiwan — where the dishwashing system was a bucket of dirty water next to the stall — gave me enough antibodies for a lifetime.

    @ Bruce – Cool typo: “germaphone” — someone who makes a lot of noise about germs. Loved the column. Like I said on FB, the dental floss line almost made me snort my coffee. Love that you had to get a photo of it.

    • I’m with you guys on building the immunity early. In college I once ate a live goldfish directly off the floor of my fraternity’s party room (which I’m sure the health department would have condemned). Sorry, mom, if I forgot to mention that part of my college experience.

      @Amy – a “germaphone” is one who Purells the shit out of the nasty telephone in the hotel room before using it (in the event of not having cell coverage in the hotel). My colleague once totally trashed a hotel phone with this technique.

  5. OK, so I got an e-mail on this one and owe my buddy, Doug, an apology. He’s my oldest and bestest buddy (BFF in the vernacular of today’s text-crazed teens) and he pointed out that he hugs me all the time, but didn’t get a reference. It’s a fair point and I apologize for the omission. In fact, at our high school reunion last year, I was so excited to see him I went for the fist bump just as he came in for the hug and I punched him squarely in the nose. He was a good sport about it. Sorry, dude.

  6. Pingback: Germaphobia, Part Deux | Bruce's Blog (til I come up with a catchier name)

  7. Pingback: LinkingIn With My Dog | Bruce's Blog (til I come up with a catchier name)

  8. Sanitopia says:

    Bruce, you are a man after our own heart! Thanks for the great post. Our favorite suggestion is the formal bow in business settings.

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