I'm a child of Eastern and Western European parents. Being that, shaking hands is a big part of the European culture, a way to forge temporary bonds with people, in greeting or in parting. It wasn't until I was in my late teens, though, that I truly took the hand shaking habit on.
And it worked for quite a while, but every now and again, I was reminded by circumstance that shaking hands was a no-no. I have a first cousin in the U.S. whose wife I could hug and embrace warmly whenever we reunited, but I could not direct the same actions to him for religious reasons. I'd stand awkwardly, not being able to extend a hand or even touch his shoulder in acknowledgment. Running through my head was always the refrain, "Never the twain shall meet."
The practice of shomer negiah is a friend to many, a stranger to others. I'm a "shomeret," a person who watches how she comes into contact with people, but does not refrain necessarily from shaking hands. I've learned to know to whom a hand may be extended, and to whom it cannot. I will always shake a hand if it is offered to me, but will think twice about initially offering my own. My biggest lesson in this area happened when I was nearing the end of my University of Toronto days.
I'd been campus/Hillel friends with a MO guy whom I'll refer here to as Danny. I recall Danny and I showed up once to help decorate the Hillel sukkah. We were the only ones volunteering for the fun and creative task, so we made it fun for ourselves, and just enjoyed the spirit of the afternoon as we put our own touches on the decorations. He poked my shoulder, I poked his (I have a tendency to do that when I'm being emphatic; think along the lines of Seinfeld's Elaine character, when she pushes people as she declares in disbelief: "Get out!" That's me to a much lesser degree.), and there was just this fun, flirtatious spirit in the air. But that's all it was. And whenever Danny and I would see each other at the Hillel house or on campus, we'd wave, chat a bit and continue on our paths.
Some time passed; I think it was already the next school year, and I saw Danny after a long lapse of time. I immediately moved to shake his hand in greeting and he quickly put both hands behind his back, as if he were playing a hiding game, placing something quickly out of sight. I automatically did the same with my hands in an reactive, impulsive way. There had been no "Sorry, I no longer shake hands with women," no "I'm now shomer negiah." It was just that he had to get his hands out of the way as fast as he could. I was so embarrassed by the situation, knowing I'd embarrassed him and myself in the moment. But that moment has stuck out in my head all these years, and it still makes me rather uneasy. Here was a guy who'd teased me and poked me in the arm just several months earlier, and suddenly doing so was off-limits. The off-limits part was fine by me, but an explanation, similar to a small-print warning sign on a product, would have been nice, too.
I've consulted with several Orthodox people about this uneasy memory of mine, and most of them said that to avoid embarrassing me, since I'd already put out my hand, Danny should have shaken it, then maybe launched into an explanation. I can't help but see in my mind that "quick-draw action" of his hands as he pulled them out of sight, away from my offered handshake.
Yes, I understand the halachot of and the reasons for shomer negiah, and I respect one's observance of it, so now that we've come to an understanding, can we please shake on it?