What to Do When We're
Not Shaking Hands

No Shaking Hands

Shaking hands is the most common greeting and gesture of good will.  In these times when people are worried about illness, many are asking how to properly greet and meet others in person.  

How do you help others feel welcome within a conversation, and at the same time be mindful of everyone’s health concerns?

Changing the Habit of Shaking Hands

A new awareness of personal space is emerging.  At a recent event (before the widespread cancellations occurred), one of the hosts greeted me far too closely.  He attempted to shake hands, then self-corrected a little, but continued to stand close by until I pulled away to speak with someone else. 

Awareness of respectful space is a priority and people are struggling to be comfortable in a time when the handshake has gone away for a while.  At another gathering, I noticed that people turn awkward moments into a bit of fun:

  • “Oops, I just shook your hand and we’re supposed to be avoiding that.”  Laughter ensued and that person took out his hand sanitizer and offered the other person a dab.  (Almost as good as the shake.)
  • After a clumsy elbow crash bump, one person apologized to me and fortunately, I responded with, “That’s okay, we’re all learning safe ways of being friendly.” 
  • When offering a hand bump to the person he was being introduced to, the other person pulled away his hand, saying, “You’d still be touching my skin and I might forget and put my hand to my face!”  The other person humorously replied, “Oh, okay, I won’t ever do that again.”  Then they both laughed.

The Virtual Handshake

Even though we won't be shaking hands for awhile, we still have the responsibility to greet others.  Enter the virtual handshake - which is simply an alternative form of greeting of your choice.

As you make eye contact and smile, offer your virtual handshake:   

  1. Place your wrists crossed on your chest, with the slightest of head bow.  (This gesture was used in the 1918 Flu epidemic as a substitute for the cheek kiss according to Etiquipedia.)  This requires no shaking hands, and as long as a smile and good eye contact have “touched” the other person, you have effectively greeted him or her.
  2. Namaste literally means, “I bow to you.”  The palms of your hands press together under your chin, thumbs resting against breastbone.  After eye contact is established, a very slight indication of a bow occurs.

  3. The Elbow Parallel Touch (as opposed to elbow ‘bump’ which often points at the other person).  Facing the other person, with right arm bent at the elbow, establish eye contact and extend your clothed arm to touch the elbow of the person you are greeting. This technique was also used during the 1918 flu epidemic, however, due to the contact required to use this method of greeting, it may be best not to use it at this time.

  4. Keep your hands in your pocket as you make eye contact, smile, and give a slight bow of your head in greeting.  This works very well for those of us who are on autopilot when greeting and are likely to offer a handshake out of habit. 

One can only guess, but because handshaking has such a long and accepted tradition, it might well be back. 

In the meantime, be ready for a host of other ideas being tried out on you including, the peace sign, the curtsy, the Vulcan salute, foot bumps, or a military salute.  Other suggestions include, “Just say ‘Hey!” or “Do a little wave.” 

We are all looking for ways to show up recognizably respectful.  Even when this means staying away from other people altogether.  Accept that we are all doing the best we can to communicate while showing kindness and courtesy. 

The most important thing to remember is: we’ll get through this.  We come from a long line of survivors!

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