April 10, 2020

What Will Replace the Handshake?


Director Fauci recommends we abandon the handshake forever. This is an opportunity to question our cultural awareness, the meaning behind our actions and our underlying assumptions about this long-held tradition. Have a read and share your ideas. communication nonverbalcommunication intention impact purpose professionalpresence crossculturalcommunicationskills coronavirus covid19 leadership training coaching organiccommunication

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has recently said that long after we survive the novel coronavirus pandemic, we should (1) continue to wash our hands frequently and vigorously and (2) abandon the handshake forever.

Months and months before COVID-19 had sadly become a household name, I met an interesting and smart man at my mail center and after getting into fascinating conversation, reached my hand out to shake his along with introducing my name. He shook my hand and said: “I must really like you, because I never shake people’s hands. I don’t know what you have.” The comment struck me as odd, and I figured perhaps he’s a hypochondriac or a germaphobe…and compassionately, maybe he’s immunocompromised due to a current condition or former illness. Because shaking hands is the norm, not the anomaly.

Admittedly, when we do get out of this pandemic, I’m certain many of us will be hesitant to get as close as we had been used to — and in many cases, thank goodness for that, since some people really don’t get the concept of what my teenage daughter calls a “personal space bubble.” But after the fear wears off, and a renewed level of comfort sets back in — we’re human, and the habit — as well as professional, polite practice — is to shake hands.

I remember taking part in an entire session dedicated to mastering the art of the handshake when I was a participant in a leadership training program. After all, I would need a firm handshake for interviews, networking, negotiating, meetings, introductions, salutations, agreements, business deals and in multiple other settings. My first career was in political communication, and the hand-hug or photo-op handshake was significant for diplomatic relations. The handshake is a tradition so ingrained and popular in multiple cultures as a sign of respect, trust, understanding, peace and alignment.

So it will be interesting to replace the handshake altogether. We have temporarily suspended the practice to slow and stop the spread of the coronavirus. The American Lung Association is recommending alternatives such as the elbow bump, the foot tap, the yoga bow, the head nod or a simple wave. But the handshake is such a firmly-fixed, go-to habit — I see people still reaching their hand out, and somewhat awkwardly withdrawing when reminded we can’t shake hands; it will be difficult to change forever.

This will be an interesting new topic to explore when I facilitate my communication, management and leadership workshops, and when we practice the skills of “interacting with intention and impact,” “cross-cultural communication,” and “nonverbal communication.” It will be an opportunity to question our cultural awareness, the meaning behind our actions, and our underlying assumptions. For example, a weak handshake has long been preferred to a firm one in countries like China and Japan, and many Americans interacting with their Asian counterparts haven’t considered the reason behind the limp handshake before and misjudged the soft hold after. Will we have our own personally branded expression, as unique as our name and signature to replace the handshake? I could see myself placing my right palm on my heart and making eye contact while smiling to replace my handshake. Or will we take on a new unified cultural custom to symbolize our objectives?

As with the current climate, there are more questions than answers at the moment. Getting clear on the intentions in our interactions and the purpose in our practices will set us up for the most diplomatically direct dialogues as well as safe and successful conversations in the future.

Lee Broekman is a communication coach and trainer with a mission to make the world a better place, one communicator at a time. Her company Organic Communication works with high level leaders and trains decision makers in top organizations to communicate, collaborate and innovate naturally and effectively. Delivering programs in concentrated bursts, with high intensity and elevated engagement, Lee turns powerful content into actionable, applicable tools. Her recent book, Stop Blocking, Start Connecting: 8 Key Skills of Successful Communicators, is available on Amazon.