I had a woman call me in tears one day asking this question. Her boss had just chewed her out for not shaking hands. “Was I right?” she asked. She was at a meeting and saw a person sneeze into his hands. During a break a few minutes later, her boss brings the person over to introduce him to her. While images of that recent sneeze flash through her mind, he reached out to shake her hand.
What would you do?
The handshake is a perfect example of what manners are and why they are valuable. Manners smooth the way as we interact with people by telling us what to do and what to expect people to do in return.
We learn from an early age that if a person reaches out a hand to shake, we should respond by shaking. It is a staple of the greeting ritual in America, the way we show respect, especially when meeting someone for the first time. When both parties shake hands, all the attention focuses on the greeting. But when a person is left with a hand hanging out there in space, the focus immediately shifts to why the other person didn’t shake hands. Even worse, not shaking the offered hand can be seen as a slight, a disrespectful gesture that needs to be explained.
Now, there are times when not shaking is appropriate, but needs to be accompanied by an explanation. “Please, excuse me for not shaking. I have a cold and don’t want to give it to you. But it is a pleasure to meet you.” “In my culture women do not shake hands, but I am very pleased to meet you.” An injury, medical condition, or religious prohibition— as long as the explanation is true and sincerely explained, it works. But if a few minutes later you are observed shaking hands with someone else, then you’re busted, and your white lie now has gotten you into deeper hot water. (That’s the problem with a white lie. When you get caught, and you will get caught, resolving the situation is much worse than whatever you told the white lie about in the first place.)
For the woman who called me, considering even for a split second how her action would affect the others might have led her to a different course of action. While hard on her, shaking hands was good for the person she was meeting, her boss, and ultimately her company. Not shaking hands, while good for her at that moment, really wasn’t good for her in the long run as it left the person confused, her boss angry, and her company possibly losing business.
In business, until that manner changes, shaking hands is still the best option.
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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.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.