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How to Politely Give the Heisman to a Business Handshake

We usually get asked to critique someone’s handshake. Is it too weak? Bone-crushing? Is there a solid palm-to-palm connection? Is the two-handed hand-hug ever appropriate? Professionals know how important handshakes are in business and they want to make a great first impression with theirs.

One shakes hands when first meeting someone, when entering a room and when leaving. Handshakes are literally the physical greeting that accompany your words and when done right signal friendliness, competence and confidence. Handshakes have been wonderful personal branding enhancers for generations.

But now, we’re being asked what to do because of the coronavirus – people don’t want to initiate a handshake and want to know how to politely decline one too. With companies canceling conferences, trade shows and large gatherings, it's easy enough to know what to do - you aren't meeting - so no handshake required. But what do you do during your normal workday without feeling awkward? With stats like handshakes spreading germs by transferring an average of 124 million colony-forming units of E. coli, it’s a wonder this hasn’t come up before. At the same time, you don’t want to offend a potential client or a customer by acting all flummoxed when they extend their hand to shake. You can’t recoil in disgust. So what to do?

You need to remember that manners never change. Being well-mannered means you follow the Golden Rule by treating others the way you would like to be treated. You treat others with kindness and respect. That hasn’t changed.

What does change is society’s rules of etiquette. They evolve over time depending on the needs of society. Think everything from calling cards with the appropriate corner dog-eared depending on the message you wanted to leave to telephone etiquette with ubiquitous cellphone use. The time has come when our society is re-thinking proper handshake etiquette and calibrating it for the situation at hand. We need to navigate this evolution of handshaking etiquette with tact and grace.

With shaking hands falling out of favor – for how long, who knows - people are seeking out options and have come up with everything from bumping elbows, doing a fist pump, offering a gingerly wave, resorting to a two hand jazz-hand performance, and even taping feet. To say we are in a bit of an awkward phase is an understatement.

Unfortunately, when we feel unsure of ourselves, we tend to touch our faces. And that is a no-no if we want to stop the spread of germs.

The best thing for you to do is to pick what works for you and consistently do it. If you do this you will be more comfortable and confident in your actions, and likely not touch your face. When you confidently handle yourself in these situations you will look better and feel better and soon not give it another thought.

If someone extends their hand to you but you don’t want to reciprocate, it’s important to use your body language to convey confidence, warmth and kindness in place of the handshake. Give yourself a little bit more space between you and the other person so a handshake is a bit more difficult to complete. Normally, in the US, we provide 2 to 4 feet of personal space. So think of discreetly adding a bit more.

Maintain eye contact, smile warmly and use your voice’s tone to politely and enthusiastically greet them along with a slight nod of your head. As you do this either keep your arms firmly down by your side, or behind your back or hold your right hand over your heart and add a slight bow. Some people may want to hold something in their right hand like a clutch, briefcase, iPad or even your other hand so it is otherwise preoccupied and less apt to automatically pop out for that handshake. Still yet another option chosen by some is the yogic namaste, your two palms pressed together in prayer formation as a way of greeting another with respect.

Whichever approach you adopt, the other person should quickly pick up the silent but polite signal that you aren’t comfortable shaking hands. If they keep their hand extended you may then say in a kind tone with an apologetic smile, “As a precaution, my rule is no handshaking for now.” Unless they are living under a rock, they will know why.

The key is for you to graciously, consistently and confidently maintain your preferred method of greeting with everyone else you encounter in the workplace – especially close friends when you are in mixed company. You want to avoid being selectively worried about some people’s germs and not others– because that sends the signal you think some are “dirty”. That signal is bad for business, for developing new relationships and for your personal brand.

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