Mind Your Manners: The etiquette of circumventing the handshake

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I have always had a love/hate relationship with a handshake.

On the one hand, it is extremely important in the business world. It helps to convey confidence and power. In fact, studies have shown that during a handshake, the person who extends their hand first is seen as establishing control. Additional studies indicate it may even help to promote trust and bonding.

On the other hand, it can increase the spread of germs and disease. Truth be told, I’m a germaphobe and have always been a bit queasy about shaking hands.

Now that the coronavirus (or COVID-19) is a certifiable pandemic, there are justifiable concerns about shaking hands. Health officials across the globe stress keeping hands clean and avoiding contact as the best ways to stave off infection. Health ministers in Switzerland and France have asked citizens to forgo “la bise,” the two-kiss greeting; and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged citizens to offer the Indian greeting of “namaste” instead of the handshake.

So how do you politely avoid shaking someone’s hand, and yet not appear as if you are snubbing them or violating an expected social norm?

First and foremost, try to be open about the awkwardness of the situation. When first greeting someone, say something along the lines of, “In light of the coronavirus, I guess we’re not supposed to shake hands now.”

Also, before going into a situation in which you know you will be expected to shake hands, decide ahead of time how you intend to replace the gesture. This will help give you confidence when you decline someone’s outstretched hand.

To help, below are a few alternatives to a handshake:

Offer the greeting of “Namaste” in which the hands are positioned prayer-like at your chest with a slight bow of the head. This past week, I saw a video of Prince Charles practicing this gesture while greeting folks in the U.K. By doing this, he politely and elegantly avoided shaking hands.

Place your right hand over your heart (as if you’re about to make a pledge) and offer a slight bow of the head.

Offer an elbow bump, but be aware this puts you within the six feet of social distancing recommended by many health officials.

Flash a peace sign with a nod of the head.

Practice the foot tap or shake. This gesture is popular in China and has been dubbed the “Wuhan shake,” named after the city at the epicenter of the virus outbreak.

“Star Trek” fans may want to consider offering the Vulcan salute.

Regardless of the gesture you chose, make sure people are be able to see your hands, and practice good eye contact. This helps convey trust.

As Thomas Payne famously said, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” We are certainly living in interesting times, and we will get through this. Stay well and may God bless. Oh — and keep washing those hands!

Pam Harvit BSRDH MS is a certified international corporate protocol and etiquette consultant and speaks nationally on business and medical etiquette, as well as other related topics. You may request her services or email your questions to pamharvit.com.