Q. Hello. My question is on my awkwardness at the first “hello” in business situations. Do I handshake or hug? For example, this morning, I saw a business friend, and he hugged me. I usually wait for the other person to make the first move – either extending a hand or leaning in for a hug. I’ve looked through Emily Post’s Etipedia and found mostly that handshakes are recommended, but I live in an area where it seems hugging is allowed. Can you weigh in on the etiquette of such?
A. C., Bakersfield, CA
A. You are correct. In business, handshakes are recommended. Hugs and other overly familiar greetings should be reserved for people you know really well and can be sure won’t feel awkward.
For years I would visit an important client accompanied by the art director of the ad agency I ran. Every time we arrived at the client’s office he would shake my hand and then hug the art director. I know this made her uncomfortable because she would comment about it on the trip back to our office. Her discomfort at this overly friendly greeting is exactly why I recommend people stay with a basic handshake—a firm grip, two or three shakes, smile, look them in the eye, and be sure to say “Hello.” Stay away from the two-handed “How glad I am to meet you” greeting or grabbing the person’s forearm with your left hand while shaking with the right. Hugs, two-handed clasps, or forearm grips express closeness between friends, but can signal dominance when the person being greeted is a stranger or a subordinate. Fist bumps, high fives, and intricate handshakes should be reserved for good friends in non-business settings.
One of the best ways I know to avoid the hug is not to let the person move in close enough to actually hug you. For instance, you know Jim is a hugger, and you really don’t want him to hug you. Prepare yourself as he approaches to be firm in keeping him out of hugging range. As he gets close enough to shake hands, extend your hand out to him so he cannot avoid shaking it. Then instead of letting him push in close for the clutch, hold his hand firmly enough to keep him at arm’s length. He’ll feel the pressure of you pushing back against him. Your message will be loud and clear: shake my hand but don’t get closer. If you’re unsure about this move, practice it ahead of time with a colleague so you feel confident doing it the next time you greet Jim.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
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