A couple of weeks ago, I shook hands with someone by accident. I instantly realized my mistake. I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of social distancing as the world tries its best to contain the relentless drive of the Coronavirus.
To most of us in the United States (and the world), the handshake is a universal greeting. From there, it escalates to a hug. Maybe even a peck on the cheek depending on the culture.
It’s sort of like the red Stop Sign. We all know what it means and how to use it.
In other words, it’s become instinctual, something that we don’t think about. When we meet someone new, we extend a hand. Even if we have met before, we might still offer a hand.
But, the quarantine and social distancing that’s in play across the world has drastically altered the way that we interact with one another. And, it especially affected the handshake.
We are not shaking hands these days (at least, we’re not supposed to). Almost overnight, our default greeting went from commonplace to nearly punishable by law.
And so, this begs the question: What’s going to happen to the business handshake?
Is the business handshake gone for good?
It’s a legitimate question, and one that I’ve thought about quite a bit.
Sure, the handshake is frowned upon right now, but does that mean it’ll forever change our customary greeting? Will society choose another way to form a polite connection with one another during introductions and business dealings?
Patrice Apodaca is one of those people who wants the handshake to go away, permanently. In an opinion piece in the LA Times, she wrote “Let’s face it, the custom is awkward and a little weird, too often requiring complex social calculations, overly intricate maneuvering and heaps of second thoughts about the relative strength, length and clamminess of the whole affair.”
And, the judgements that we implicitly make further devalue the greeting, she wrote. Men are negatively judged if their grip isn’t firm enough and women feel the implicit need to balance their “femininity” with keeping up with everyone else in terms of grip and duration of the shake.
And then there’s the whole question of cleanliness – with or without a deadly airborne virus making its way across the world. Are their hands clean? When was the last time they washed them? Should I immediately excuse myself to give my hands a quick scrub?
And, why the heck are their hands wet? Ugh!
Will today’s [quite necessary] temporary aversion to the handshake continue after our society has returned back to normal?
My feeling is quite simple: no.
Fundamentally, the handshake will still be the de facto greeting we use with one another. Though, there might be a few major differences in how we handle them.
First, we’ll wash our hands more than we usually do. I’m terrible at washing my hands, but this experience has taught me that we can never be too careful. The more handshakes that we give (hello, politicians!), the more often that hand washing is necessary. It’s just good hygiene.
And, most of us will appreciate the greeting more once we’re able to do it again. Though you may or may not personally like the custom, it will stand once again as the implicitly understood introduction, making it easy and straightforward to greet anyone that you meet. I firmly believe that this is temporary. The handshake isn’t going anywhere.
But, what if you’d rather take this opportunity to nix the handshaking custom altogether? How can you avoid the handshake without being rude? There are several interesting and polite techniques to turning down a handshake that ensures both parties don’t take offense.
How to politely turn down a handshake
If you want to take a personal stand against the handshake, but also don’t want to be rude while doing so, there are a few tactics that will make this much easier.
Note: In a business setting, taking a stand against the handshake might be tougher. Business deals are built around the concept of a handshake. It’s not just a greeting. It’s also a tactic that signals the closing of a business deal, implying an understanding and agreement.
Thus, while it might be possible to avoid the handshake in business, tread lightly.
Tactic #1: Drive the introduction
I’ve seen people bow slightly as a way of greeting another person. While it might come across as strange in the United States, the other person generally takes the hint and returns the bow with one of their own. It might be helpful to hold your hands together during the bow to further reinforce that you do not intend on extending your hand for a shake.
Alternatively, others will place their right hand over their heart and simply nod. Or, some will just wave.
The key to making this tactic work is to be the first to offer the greeting. Steer the introduction. Otherwise, once the other person extends a hand, it’s more difficult and awkward to decline the handshake.
Tactic #2: How about a fist bump?
This greeting is customarily used by men (and outside of the business environment), but it certainly need not be an exclusive greeting. And while the fist bump doesn’t completely eliminate making contact with the other person, it significantly reduces skin-on-skin contact.
Keep in mind that I would not recommend this as your handshake alternative in a professional business environment unless you know the other person very well.
Tactic #3: Use an excuse
“Oh, I’m sorry I cannot shake your hand right now. I have a cold and my hands are all germie”.
Excuses can work, but they might not work on the same person all the time as they might start getting the hint that you always have an excuse for not shaking their hand. That might turn awkward.
Providing an excuse has the best chances of working on those whom you will likely never see again, or at least see very infrequently.
People probably won’t question you on the excuse, especially if it’s plausible.
Another closely-related tactic is to have your hands full – in other words, literally holding something. This won’t always be possible, of course, but it is a good way to avoid the other person even offering a hand.
Tactic #4: Just be honest
Honesty can work, but choose your words carefully. For example, a blanket “Oh, I don’t shake hands” might come across as gruff or holier-than-thou even though you don’t mean to be either of those things.
Consider offering something a little more wordy, like, “Oh sorry, I have this weird phobia about shaking hands. But, why don’t we bow?” This instantly removes the impression that it might be a personal thing and implies that it’s your own preference.
While the handshake greeting has taken a temporary backseat to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, it’s not going anywhere. Once the virus subsides and our society returns back to normal, the handshake will re-emerge as the customary greeting and deal-maker. But, that doesn’t mean that there is no way around the shake – if you don’t like it. The key is to know your environment and audience and offer a polite response.
Or better yet, drive the interaction and choose another manner of greeting, which puts you in complete control of every introduction.