With the novel coronavirus beginning to spread to parts and in ways somewhat unknown, the experts agree: the handshake is so 2019. “Just DON’T do it” is the message we are receiving loud and clear from the World Health Organization, along with other medical and public health professionals.
However, we as a species in general are drawn to touch. Handshakes are an ingrained part of business etiquette, especially in the U.S. and other western cultures. This begs the question: what should you do when someone extends their hand in a job interview or business meeting? If you’re the one recoiling from a potential employer’s touch, won’t that affect your chances of getting hired? Or what if you whip out your trusty hand sanitizer immediately afterward, as if to cleanse yourself of the other person’s cooties?
These questions are valid. Neither move is a good look for someone trying to curry favor and make a good impression on a future employer or coworker. Not all people believe that handshakes are problematic or could even be a way to spread the virus. Also, for most of us, the handshake is a deeply entrenched personal and cultural habit. We reach out to others without being fully aware we’re doing it.
Evidence of handshakes date back to the 5th Century. They were common practice in the Roman era. Back then, extending your right hand–the dominant hand for most people–was intended to show you were not packing a weapon. In modern days, it is the top, go-to, person-to-person greeting. Like all habits, it won’t be easy to kick.
Top tips for avoiding getting sick or spreading COVID-19 are still to wash your hands vigorously and frequently, avoid touching your face, cough or sneeze into your elbow,and stay home if you’re sick. Yet, handshakes are rapidly falling out of favor as an acceptable form of greeting. One thing we know about the coronavirus is that we don’t know enough. Decreasing your intentional contact via the primary body part that moves from object to handrail to door handle to person to money, then hand, hair and mouth seems like a no-brainer.
What is the solution? Great question, amigo. Bringing up concerns at the beginning of an interaction might come across as paranoid or rude, but it may be the only way to actually avoid the now dreaded handshake. Expressing something like “Nice to meet you, but I’m trying not to shake hands to help keep everyone safe” is straightforward. It feels counterintuitive, though, and the other person may be initially taken aback.
However, the odds of that person appreciating your candor and cleanliness will likely be in your favor. At best, they’ll be grateful and agree. At worst, they’ll be offended, though honesty remains the best policy. If someone holds an honest, recommended, precautionary measure against you, perhaps it’s a sign this isn’t an ideal match.
Videos and articles are making the rounds on alternatives to the handshake. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the ones I’ve seen.
- Fist bumps still mean hand to hand contact, but are much quicker, with a smaller contact area. Plus, the back of the hand is less often used to touch your face (which we also need to stop doing).
- Polite nods are great. They are less personal, yet acknowledge the other person’s presence in a friendly way.
- Elbow bumps are oddly starting to take off, though the advice to cough or sneeze into your elbow, albeit the other side, leaves me cringing a bit.
- The footshake looks hilarious and could be precarious for those with a shoddy sense of balance. But they are safer, hygiene-wise.
- Hand signs are neato and fun, too. Waving or flashing a peace sign is friendly and safe. If you live in Austin, where The American Genius and the University of Texas are based, why not start busting out your “Hook ‘em Horns” sign? You’ll look cool and like a bonafide Austinite.
- Do like Broadway is doing, and maybe stick to jazz hands?
Another option, and one that appears to be becoming more popular, is to take more meetings virtually. Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, and a host of other video-conferencing tools are readily available to anyone with a computer or smartphone. They present a viable, outstanding and totally hygienic choice.
Personally I’d like to see us all wearing hats again. Can’t you see greeting each other like a dandy in the early 1900s, with a jaunty tip of the hat? In any case, with more reported COVID-19 cases in more cities and countries around the world, we should hope to see fewer handshakes and more hygienic ways to say hello.
If you are caught in an awkward situation and feel obligated to shake hands, don’t freak out. Try restraining yourself from touching your face until you manage to perform your 20-second hand washing. Good luck, and until further notice, I tip my hat to you, good sir or madam.