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Friends shaking hands


At my godfather's funeral some years back, I searched for words to describe his relationship with my father. I wanted to tell what I had experienced in their interactions while growing up from toddler to adult. I captured in a few words something that has affected my whole life.

On the surface of their relationship were laughter and fun family times. As kids, we would sit listening to radio shows on a Friday evening in the bedroom and then meld into the lounge, soaking up the adult conversation. There was always a stolen sip of beer, and later they would move on to wine. Alcohol animated their dialogue.

There were also always arguments. Strangely while I can remember so many details about those evenings, I can’t remember one recurring topic from the arguments. I can only remember how relentless they were. They would go on for hours: politics, sports, work colleagues, gossip. Whatever the topic, my father and godfather would line up in opposite corners like boxers in a ring. There was no starting or ending bell, just an ongoing argument.

Sometimes they would hold tightly to their position all night. Sometimes they would change sides, arguing the point that the other had started with. I remember wondering how they could be friends when they spent so much time disagreeing.

It was only at my father's recent funeral, where I repeated the words from years before, that I started to understand what they meant. My father started working at Mobil Oil in the 1950s. My godfather was his first boss. They became lifelong friends, and that relationship had thousands of ramifications on their spouses, children and larger circles of friends. Like a stone landing in a still lake, the friendship in the middle rippled out in ever larger circles over decades, continents, eras, and generations.

This made me reflect on the thousands of people I have met in business and life. I have had seemingly random encounters that have led to significant relationships. One relationship started with an argument over who would sleep on the only bed in my Maastricht student digs in 1991. Another began with threatening to sue over a business disagreement. Some school friends left a mark through their generosity, humour or shared adventures. I have been a client of others, and some have been clients of mine. Colleagues with deeply shared experiences and ‘met once at a conference’ all make up the tapestry of my relationships.

Looking at it now, there is no formula. There is, however, a constant. The constant with each meaningful relationship in my life is time. Meaning doesn’t happen quickly. Like anything of quality, it takes time. Time to percolate. Time to accumulate experiences. Time to go down dead ends and turn back together. Or perhaps realise together is not a thing, and in a Darwinian act of selection, a relationship must be let go, allowing for more meaningful connections with the remaining ones."

Like my father and godfather, and being a man, some of my most meaningful relationships are with men. And we men, in my culture, do not come equipped with the language to describe our relationships particularly elegantly. The L word does not come up in polite conversation over beers, business opportunities and sports.

And this is why the song recorded by Louis Armstrong in the year I was born is such a hopeful reminder of the meaningful relationships we are sometimes privileged to have in business. Not only does the line

"Friends shaking hands saying how do you do, they're really saying, I love you”

describe the unspoken love between people with consequential relationships, but it also speaks of the hope that every handshake could start something life-changing. The arguments I grew up with were about something other than the arguments. This is why I don’t remember the topics. I do remember the feeling. The arguments were them shaking hands. Shaking hands was the only way to express what they felt about each other.