The Handshake – Does it have a Place in a Post-Covid World?
The handshake is one of many customs of greeting around the world. It is considered the necessary
way of beginning and ending business meetings. But in other cultures, these greetings happen very
differently. 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 Congo, male
friends touch foreheads. You may already know about customs of bowing, hugs and kisses which are
more the norm in many countries. However, in most countries the handshake still prevails.
The history of the handshake is very practical in its origin. Back to 5th century BC Greece it
was done as a way to make sure neither person was hiding a weapon. The shaking would make sure
any loose daggers would fall to the ground.
The handshake is even in the Guinness Book of World Records. President Theodore Roosevelt set
the first record for a head of state by shaking hands with 8,513 people at an event on New Year’s
Day in 1907. That record has since been broken!
Learning how to shake hands has over the years become a right of passage for young men and
eventually women entering the business world. Looking someone in the eye, smiling, putting
out your right hand and giving the perfect Goldilocks handshake—not too hard, not too loose,
just right. Business classes would even make their students practice the handshake to ensure
they understood the correct form as well as its significance in the business world.
However, eighteen months ago things changed drastically. It’s happened before during the swine
flu but this was much worse. And it affected and continues to affect our handshake protocol. First,
unless you’re Stretch Armstrong it is very hard to shake hands from a 6-foot social distance.
It gave the world a chance to re-evaluate a lot of things about boundaries and forced interactions
and physical touch. People who felt awkward about an outstretched hand no longer had to worry about
declining the offer of a handshake.
And the alternatives people found have been very creative. In Tanzania, politicians were
photographed “foot-shaking”. In Thailand, fellow greeters practice the wai, a slight bow,
with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.
“In France, etiquette expert Philippe Lichtfus advised that looking directly into the eyes of
the person you’re greeting will be sufficient. You might want to first practice in front of a
mirror, lest your greeting be mistaken for the stink eye.”
Now that we may be returning to a more normal type of interaction, is the handshake allowed
again? Most scientists say no. In addition to breaking that 6ft. barrier, hands continue to be
one of the most frequent ways germs are passed, whether it’s Covid or the flu. So, if you’re
not in a position to wash your hands immediately after a handshake, maybe a handshake is still
If handshakes are still forbidden, what are the alternatives in the business world for greetings?
There are many other options that fly in the face of the 6ft. barrier but keep you out of the
bathroom every five minutes washing your hands. Here are some creative suggestions:
The Fist Bump: Once only reserved for athletes, it’s moved rapidly into the mainstream
in the last year. While it may seem a bit primitive, it’s a fun a safe way to greet someone
else. Avoid the temptation to do any kind of waves or finger wiggles afterward.
The Foot Shake: This one might not work in all situations. It’s basically a fist bump with
feet. Allows the greeters to stay a little farther apart and doesn’t require any hand washing
or sanitizing afterward.
The Elbow Bump: Another body part in the bump category, elbows are pretty easy. Kind of in
the middle on the social distancing between fists and feet.
The Wave: This one may feel the most awkward depending on the distance you are standing apart.
To wave to someone you know or to someone you are just meeting are both bizarre. But it does
afford the most safety keeping you both socially distant and not touching.
The Hip Bump: For those who lived through the 70s, we fear once you start this you may not
want to stop! This is not at all recommended for those meeting for the first time. Familiar
meeting only as a humorous way of greeting.
The Smile and Look: This is a great way to greet someone but might be hard to communicate
your greeting intention. Will probably require some verbal communication with it to not make
The big issue now is how to handle that outstretched hand if you’re not ready to shake hands
just yet? We’ve probably all seen those awkward pictures on TV of someone extending their hand
to shake and the other person leaning in for the elbow bump. It’s uncomfortable for both parties
but understandable that sometimes it’s hard to remember every time that the rules have changed.
And even though it might seem like they’ve now relaxed, not everyone may be ready to go back to
exactly like things were. So maybe from now on just the fist bump or the elbow bump is the way
Whether it’s for now or forever, learning the new rules of greeting and engagement will be
helpful for business. It’s still an important part of business etiquette that isn’t likely
to go away soon.