It might be time to leave handshaking behind.
When you walked into a room for a business meeting or interview, your first thought was probably to stick out your hand for a handshake. It's more than just a habitual nicety — it's a gesture of goodwill and an important first impression.
Even Political satirist P.J. O'rourke, who may not take Washington seriously, takes handshakes seriously: “A firm, hearty handshake gives a good first impression, and you'll never be forgiven if you don't live up to it.”
But that was before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, we're leary of touching other people unnecessarily and that's got us thinking that maybe the handshake, which has been around since at least the ninth century B.C., is obsolete.
The case against handshaking
It's pretty clear that, at least for the time being, handshaking is not a good idea. According to the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) workplace, home, and school guidance outlines, the first entry in the section about workplace hygiene states, “Stop handshaking — use other non-contact methods of greeting.”
The World Health Organization reiterates that, “Respiratory viruses can be spread by shaking hands and touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.”
While it's not as up close and personal as the double cheek kiss, handshaking involves person-to-person physical contact that can spread germs and viruses, further exacerbating the problem.
How to politely avoid a handshake
As things begin to reopen and people start meeting again (safely of course), what happens when you walk into a room and the person you are there to meet sticks out their hand for a firm handshake? What that person sees as a polite, force-of-habit gesture looks to you like a filthy grenade being offered. How do you refuse without making the whole situation awkward?
The honest answer is that there are no easy answers; there's no foolproof technique that will make this situation immediately free of awkwardness. Your best bet is light-hearted honesty.
Keep your hand in your pocket or put them up in the air and say, “I no longer prefer to shake hands” or “Because of the coronavirus, I don't shake hands anymore” or something similar. Smile, be polite when you say it, and then offer a different, contact-free greeting.
It's all about keeping it light and putting the onus on yourself; the last thing you want to do is to make it seem like an accusation of ignorance.
What should replace handshakes?
It's hard to imagine handshaking going away completely, but it just might. If that's the case, what would take its place? There are many different, traditional ways of saying hello that don't involve touching palms, plus a few new (if quirky) ideas that have popped up lately.
Keep it simple, right? In a Business Insider poll of 1,000 people, 54 percent of them said it's time to move on from the handshake to another form of greeting. What was the most popular choice? With 22 percent of the vote, a wave was the top selection.
It's easy — we all do it frequently. It doesn't require touching or even standing close together. While it may seem a bit casual for business meetings, there could be opportunities to create variations of a wave that have different meanings.
You've probably seen it a million times, either in movies or in real life. The Japanese bow, also called an Ojigi, is a simple upper torso bow that works as a greeting. But, it does get a bit more complicated than that if we're being honest.
There are three types of Ojigi based on how far down you bend. If you tilt about 15 degrees, you're saying “hi” in a fairly casual manner, called Eshaku. Take that bow down to 30 degrees and it's a Keirei, a more formal, business-like greeting. If you go all the way down to 45 degrees, you're showing great respect and reverence with a Saikeirei, or you could be saying you're sorry.
For our purposes, the 30-degree bow would make the most sense so start practicing.
Sign language hello
American Sign Language is used by up to approximately 500,000 deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States and Canada. One of the simplest signs to learn is “hello.” To say hello in sign language, you use your right hand, flattened with the thumb curled into the palm, and put it up to your head, just in front of your ear. Then, you push the hand forward and out away from your head in what looks like a casual military salute.
It's simple, and could be one of the easiest options for replacing the handshake since many people already know it, even with ASL being just one of over 300 sign languages used globally.
Hand over heart
Think about the pose you use when citing the Pledge of Allegiance; placing your right hand over your heart just feels like a gesture of respect and reverence. Why not put it to more use? In parts of the world that are largely Muslim, it is commonly used as a greeting when addressing someone who may not welcome physical contact. Even Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has said that he opts for this move as it can be done from six feet away.
If done with a slight bow or nod of the head, the hand over the heart move is a simple, elegant solution.
Even if you don't know what it's called, you've seen the hang loose or shaka sign. It's one hand up with thumb and pinky spread out and the middle three fingers curled in. Then, hold it out and twist the hand in the air back and forth. Did you just think of surfer dudes? It's a popular sign among the brotherhood of the longboard, but it originated as a sign of gratitude and friendship.
Legend has it that Hamana Kalili of Laie, Hawaii is the founding father of the hang loose or shaka sign. Kalili worked at a sugar mill and lost his three middle fingers on one hand in a work accident. He was reassigned to the sugar train and when the train was ready to roll, he'd signal the engineer by waving his hand in the air with his two fingers extended. The wave became popular on the island and eventually, around the world. There is even a statue of Kalili in Laie doing his famous wave.
While the hang loose is perfectly legit, this one's reputation can make it a bit too casual in a professional setting.
For some individuals, the coronavirus has them opting for the footshake. It starts with walking up to the person you're meeting and sticking out one foot, with them doing the same. Then, the both of you tap your feet together or even hold them together for a very quick shake before repeating with the other foot.
While this alternative can look silly and forces you inside that six-foot barrier, you can still have fun imagining your company's top executives doing this one in the boardroom.
The elbow bump
While the elbow bump has been a popular choice of greeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's been around for awhile, popping up during previous health crises like the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
This move is just what it sounds like. Two people approach each other with their elbows bent and facing the other person. Bump them together, and you've done it right.
While this alternative does require you to get close and, if you're wearing short sleeves or no sleeves, could involve skin-to-skin contact, it still reduces the spread of germs since you are less likely to rub your elbow on your face afterwards. If any skin-to-skin contact still makes you uneasy, avoid the elbow bump.
Handshaking is hardwired into our culture
It's hard to say if the handshake is going to go away entirely as a result of this pandemic. It means a lot more to use than just a greeting — we've even talked about the importance of the handshake here. But, just in case, you may want to start practicing other forms of greetings before your meetings and interviews start up again.
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