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.