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The New Rules of Handshake Etiquette

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

As conferences, networking, and in-person business meetings ramp up after a long hiatus, we’re entering yet another gray area of social interaction: The handshake.

Once so ubiquitous as to be an afterthought, the handshake has become something of an etiquette minefield. Do we shake and risk spreading disease? Do we trust other

people’s hygiene enough to resume? Do we continue shaking as a sign of moving forward after a dark time?

The answer to those questions are all over the map, with social scientists and epidemiologists weighing in on what they’d like to see happen (many health professionals, like Dr. Anthony Fauci in the United States, have expressed their hope that the handshake will go the way of the dodo).

As an etiquette expert, I spend a lot of time thinking about simple gestures like handshakes. At its core, etiquette is about adhering to a set of social standards that allow us all to feel comfortable. How can we navigate handshakes in a way that make everyone involved feel OK?

Solutions are popping up everywhere. An event planning business in the United States sells “I Shake Hands” stickers. The entrepreneurs behind the product Social Bands use a classic green-yellow-red system for their rubber bracelets: red means no contact, yellow indicates that the person wants to be greeted elbows only, and green gives people the go-ahead for hi-fives and handshakes.

At the heart of these solutions is clear, effective communication. Wearing your preference is one route, but there are many other ways to express your choice.

Use body language. If you don’t want to shake hands, don’t offer your hand. You can use an alternate hands-free greeting, such as namaste: Fold your hands together, as in prayer, and give a slight bow. Or simply offer your elbow or keep your hands clasped.

Use your voice. As you are offering your elbow or clasping your hands, tell the person you’re greeting that you’re not shaking hands at the moment. Be clear but keep a friendly tone.

Use your empathy. Other people might not be comfortable touching elbows, for example. Be gracious if your greeting isn’t matched. We’re all navigating outbreaks within our own communities, varying levels of restrictions, and the ongoing upheaval of societal norms.

Are you shaking hands at the moment? If not, how are you letting other people know? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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