Avoiding Shaking Hands? Try This Instead

An effective handshake exudes confidence, respect and ambition. Unfortunately, many professionals have put handshakes on hold due to COVID-19 concerns.


Avoiding handshakes hasn’t been easy for numerous career-driven individuals. In fact, shaking hands in business meetings is such a long-standing practice that you may have no idea how to replace this common greeting. Don’t panic—we’ll help you navigate the new normal until it’s safe to grip palms again.


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A brief history of shaking hands in business

Many of us learned how to shake hands before our first job interview and continued this practice until COVID-19 struck. Handshakes date all the way back to ancient Greece, but locking hands gained popularity in America after 18th-century Quakers adopted this greeting. Their goal was to replace other greetings, such as bows and hat doffing, with a simple handshake.


In the business world, a handshake signifies trust. When both hands are visible, it sends a message that you have nothing to hide. A handshake also indicates a union—either of minds, actions or an actual merger.


In the days before COVID-19, professionals often used handshakes as a greeting or introduction. Shaking hands in business was also common after a meeting or the finalization of a deal. The handshake is a symbol of trust, but it also shows respect for the other party. When you shake someone’s hand, you show that they are worthy of your acknowledgment.


What to do instead of shaking hands

Handshakes are so embedded in corporate culture that skipping them may feel awkward or even downright rude. Fortunately, there are ways to lighten the mood and make handshake avoidance less uncomfortable for everyone. Whether you run a company or interview job candidates on a regular basis, the suggestions below will help you refuse handshakes with ease.


1. Embrace the awkwardness

COVID-19 has completely changed the way many of us do things in our personal and professional lives. Don’t sugarcoat the impact the pandemic has had on the world or pretend that you don’t feel weird avoiding handshakes from clients and colleagues. When you feel awkward, it’s OK to share your thoughts.


Embracing the awkwardness that stems from COVID-19 guidelines looks different for everyone. It may mean showing up for a meeting and saying, “Hey, normally I’d shake everyone’s hands, but this pandemic has me feeling uncomfortable with physical touch.” Or you can say, “It’s so weird not to shake hands, right?” when a candidate arrives for an interview. Your honesty may help you develop stronger connections with coworkers and clients.


2. Lighten the mood with humor

The pandemic has been rough for people around the globe, but humor can lighten the mood. Don’t be afraid to poke fun at yourself when you refuse to shake hands with another business professional.


Saying something like, “I’d love to shake your hand, but I spend 15 minutes wiping down my groceries every time I shop. This is a germ-free zone!” can make a colleague smile. You can also dramatically emulate a handshake during a virtual interview that would have taken place in person during the pre-COVID days. It’s OK to laugh at yourself as you practice handshake alternatives or refuse this popular greeting.


3. Try new greetings

Handshakes aren’t the only way you can greet business professionals. Some executives have started elbow bumping each other as a way to seal a business deal, though you may not feel comfortable with any form of physical contact just yet. If that’s the case, consider nodding your head, doing a fist pump in the air or simply waving hello. Virtual high fives are also an option.


You may also find it helpful to ask colleagues or clients what they’re doing in place of handshakes. When you arrive for a meeting, you can ask, “What are we doing instead of handshakes these days?” and follow your client’s lead.


4. Plan ahead

Prepare yourself for handshake avoidance by planning ahead. Decide which handshake alternatives work for you, and have several lines ready, such as, “No thank you, I’m not shaking hands at this time.” You can also communicate your wishes to staff, clients and vendors ahead of time.


It may be tempting to deviate from your new routine, but it’s best to hold off on shaking hands in business meetings until COVID-19 is completely under control. “When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon,” warns Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Gregory Poland.


Tips for planning ahead

When you avoid shaking hands in business, you may feel uncomfortable or put on the spot. You can help prevent awkwardness by planning ahead for successful handshake avoidance.


Here are some tips to help you make the most of your planning:


Communicate your expectations ahead of time

Don’t wait until you’re about to begin a business meeting to share your thoughts on handshakes during COVID-19. Send an email or a quick text before a meetup that says, “FYI, I’m not shaking hands at this time, but I’m open to elbow bumping.” When scheduling interviews with candidates, let them know beforehand that you are avoiding handshakes.


Sharing your expectations in advance eliminates the “should I or shouldn’t I” question business professionals may have regarding handshakes. You can focus on making the most of your meeting instead of feeling socially awkward.


Create company guidelines for handshakes

If you work in an industry that often hosts client meetings, your employees might be wondering how they should greet guests. Clear up any confusion by creating a detailed company policy about handshake guidelines.


If handshakes are OK when both parties are wearing gloves, then say so. Gloved handshakes may be common in the food industry or at factory jobs. Clients and colleagues may also have on gloves when they arrive for winter meetings.


If you prefer that workers completely avoid handshakes, offer alternatives in your policy. Elbow bumps, waves and head nods are a few options.


Practice handshake refusal

Despite your planning, you may encounter a client or coworker who insists on shaking hands in business meetings or other professional situations. Don’t cave. Politely yet firmly remind the other party that you are not shaking hands at this time, and if you want, let them know your decision is nothing personal.


You can prepare for a situation like this by practicing refusals in advance. Repeat phrases like, “No thank you, I’m not comfortable shaking hands today,” or “I appreciate the gesture, but I’m not shaking hands until the spread of COVID-19 is under control in our area.” It’s OK to stand up for yourself, especially during a global pandemic.


Many of us have grown accustomed to shaking hands in business situations, but handshakes aren’t ideal during COVID-19. Reduce the spread of germs by planning ahead for handshake refusal and incorporating other greetings into your workday.

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