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Is the Business Handshake Dead?

Let’s open our minds to some new possibilities…

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Last year, on a television talk show in Los Angeles, many eons into my career as a communication trainer, I was introduced (unbeknownst to me beforehand) as “the handshake guru.” I have to admit that I felt a little bit embarrassed, but I definitely appreciated the lovely spirit in which my hosts presented me to their audience members, as well as the way they promoted the importance of my “Professional Handshake” segment on their show.

So now, fast forward to today, and you won’t be surprised to hear that the question I receive most often (both on camera and off) is whether the business handshake will disappear altogether, now that we’re practicing social distancing. While my initial response is that handshaking will eventually return when the pandemic finally ends (yes, I’m an optimist), it’s obvious that we need alternatives for now.

Pre-pandemic, I taught people—high school and college students, job seekers, psychiatric patients, business professionals, and many others—how to shake hands with poise and confidence. Male or female, young or not-so-young, new hire or senior manager, it matters not: delivering a proper handshake in business (and everywhere else) conveys a powerful message about you as a person.

So, with handshakes being verboten, what are we to do? For starters, we need to acknowledge that handshakes are only one of many tried-and-true, cordial greetings from around the world. There’s an amazing diversity of salutation rituals from cultures other than our own. For instance, in Tibet, sticking out your tongue can be a way of welcoming people. In New Zealand, Maori greet each other by touching noses. Ethiopian men touch shoulders, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, male friends touch foreheads. In some Latin American and European countries, as well as in many Mideastern countries, hugs or kisses on the cheek are the norm.

So let’s examine how we might replace handshakes—at least for the time being—with something that’s friendly, feasible (we’ve all witnessed a few substitutes that are impossible to pull off!), and gracious.

Let’s open our minds to some new possibilities…

1. The Fist Bump — Yo, bro! Fist bumps are good, but only if you’re in a casual situation and you know the other person fairly well. I’m not sure a fist bump would go over well at a funeral, or if you were a CPA who’s meeting a new client for the first time. Still, fist bumps are simple to perform, quick, easygoing, and positive. And possibly the best part: unlike some of the next options, you’re unlikely to confuse the other person if you come in for a fist bump—we’re accustomed to them. Use them when you’re feeling friendly and sporty. (But remember: in order to fist bump another person, you’ll need to be closer than six feet apart, which is currently disrecommended.)

2. The Elbow Bump — Please, no! Ever since Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Vice President Mike Pence attempted to demonstrate the elbow bump, we’ve been asking each other what in the world they were thinking (or smoking). Luckily, bumping elbows didn’t last through the first few months of the pandemic, which is a good thing, because the elbow bump might have been the most awkward invention ever. So unless you’re just playing around and going for a few laughs, don’t even bother approaching another person with this one—you’ll look as if you’re attempting to engage them in a rollicking round of “The Chicken Dance!” (And as if you needed another reason to reject this option, you’ll be standing closer than six feet apart.)

3. Mr. Spock’s “Live long and Prosper” Vulcan finger sign — While telling a business associate you hope they have a long and rewarding life is never a bad idea, many people can’t separate their fingers like Leonard Nimoy did back on the “Star Trek” TV series. If you’re like me, you’ve tried it, and you’ve even managed to perform it successfully a few times, but it’s not an “instant on,” automatic skill that comes easily. In fact, for many of us, we’re required to actually stare at our fingers to make sure we’re doing it correctly, which definitely defeats the whole greeting vibe. So for most people, the Vulcan finger sign is simply too difficult to pull off gracefully. (However, there’s really nothing negative in the message it conveys, so go for it if you feel like it—and are blessed with super coordinated fingers.)

4. The foot tap — No, not a good idea, for several reasons. First of all, as is true with the fist and elbow bumps, you must move in closer than six feet to tap the foot of another person. But perhaps most importantly, it’s awkward and difficult! I practiced it with a colleague—and I mean we sincerely made an effort—and it was simply too perplexing to determine what the other person was doing, which foot they intended to lift, or how close we needed to stand. Also, getting the “strength” of the tap just right was difficult, and we found ourselves knocking each other off balance during a few of our more clumsy (although humorous) attempts. This one gets a “thumbs down” from me as a greeting, although it’s a fairly good balance and coordination exercise!

5. Air Kisses — In a recent piece done by National Geographic, many of their readers suggested air kisses as a substitute. It’s a sweet gesture, easy to execute, you can maintain your distance, and it’s quick…but somehow, I doubt air kisses are going to win points in a serious business meeting. If you’re inclined to blow kisses, I would follow the same guidelines as the fist bump: employ them only if you’re in a casual situation and you know the other person fairly well.

6. Slight Bow — Now we’re getting somewhere. Keeping your arms and hands at your sides (so as not to even hint about offering a handshake), smiling, and performing a gentle bow of the head and shoulders shows respect and acknowledgement of the other person. It’s quick, easy to perform, and it even looks stylish and cool. What’s more, you can perform a small bow while standing six or more feet away from the other person, which also shows respect for their health and well-being.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the slight bow is my current favorite “formal” handshake substitution, and my favorite “informal” substitute is a big, enthusiastic wave—sometimes using both of my hands simultaneously! (And yes, it’s dorky, but no one can accuse me of looking unfriendly…)

And finally, …

7. The Namaste — You may not know its name, but you know the move. This is where you press your palms together with fingers extended upward (as if you were going to pray), bring your hands in to your heart, and then raise your hands up toward your face. Next, you smile, and then slightly bow your head for a moment to welcome the other person. In many parts of the world, this gesture is the predominant, “go-to” greeting, and it’s becoming more popular practically everywhere, now that we’ve nixed the handshake. It’s graceful, positive, and easy to execute from a distance. Many people also describe the Namaste gesture as “calming,” which certainly must be counted as a plus.

(Word of warning: in some cultures, the more important the other person is, the higher you hold your hands—however, I caution against this practice, as it could inadvertently lead to creating one more way in which we practice status discrimination against others. Best to raise your hands equally for all your fellow humans.) For decades, we heard the old adage, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they shake hands,” and it was true. But until handshakes become safe again, it’s time to embrace the present world, put your best foot forward (just kidding—no foot taps or elbow bumps, please), and greet others in a way that conveys openness, warmth, and positivity. So choose your favorite option and go for it!

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