Deconstructing the High-Five

We used to say “Gimme five!” By “we,” of course, I mean people in general, and of a certain generation. At the time, it was understood that if you gave someone five, they’d give you five in return. If you weren’t sure that the five you’d given was coming back to you, you could say something like, “Don’t leave me hangin’!” But, more often than not, you could be pretty sure that if you gave someone five, they’d give it back. This was a good thing.

Then came the go-go eighties, with big hair, Reaganomics, car phones, and E.T. (among other things). Amidst all of this came the invention of the high-five. I remember reading about it in Weekly Reader. Apparently professional athletes had begun to tire of saying “Gimme five!” and had, instead, taken to giving each other a new form of greeting-cum-congratulatory gesture. This, I would argue, is where everything went to hell.

The problem with the high-five is that there’s no give-and-take, no real exchange. This represents a clear departure from the logic of the old “Gimme five!” which went something like this: You’re going to give me something, and I’m going to give you something in return. It was a very communal kind of gesture, and the variation “Gimme some skin!” points to the significance of the exchange; each party was giving of itself to the other—indeed, giving skin, of all things. Valuable body tissue.

The high-five, by way of contrast, is not about exchange. There’s no give and take. Instead, it’s a head-on collision of hands. Which, I suppose, is more of a hand-on collision. Of palms. But the point is that it cut the ritual in half. Instead of one gesture echoed by a second iteration, we got a single slap, high in the air. I wasn’t giving you anything, and you weren’t giving me anything in return. In the final analysis, we were just hitting each other. It was a lot more efficient, but a lot less personal.

And from the high-five evolved the fist-bump, itself a way of touching hands without actually touching hands, and then the atomic fist-bump, in which the bump is followed by a pantomime of the fists exploding like asteroids colliding in space. The idea here, it would seem, is to suggest power rather than intimacy, domination rather than friendship. Or, at best, mutually assured destruction—a far cry from the sense of trust and intimacy implied when we used to give each other five.