Not Shaking Hands Feels Weird

by @edent | # | 3 comments

In British culture - the handshake is the default greeting. It's as ubiquitous as a hearty "good morning" or offering to buy people a round of drinks in the pub. To deliberately not shake hands is rude. It indicates that you are breaking normal social behaviour.

Handshakes are political. Back in the 1990s, the Prime Minister shook hands with the Sinn Fein president - leading to protests:

"Traitor," they shouted. "Your hands are covered in blood," they barracked him. The loyalist protesters were waiting, some wearing rubber gloves to show what they thought of the Blair-Adams handshake.
A woman yelled: "You are contaminated, I'll not shake hands with you."
Blair barracked after historic handshake with Adams 1997

I think I've only ever refused to shake hands with someone on a couple of occasions. Once, a director of Phorm - a company which tried to blackmail me - came to my office. I don't think he knew who I was, but looked aghast when his proffered hand was refused.

Another time, a noted homophobe in the UK tech scene bounded up to me like we were old friends (we barely knew each other) and stuck out his hand. I looked at it, turned around, and carried on talking to my friend and his boyfriend.

I don't regret either - but both cases left me feeling uncomfortable. Like I'd spat on their face, or insulted their parentage.

A few weeks ago, I was at a health-tech conference.

Handshaking was discouraged, but not banned. I took the stance that I wasn't going to touch anyone. And yet - even in a health conference, with COVID19 bearing down on us - people were still offering their hand to me. I tried to laugh it off, or offer a foot bump, or elbow knock.

Some people glared at me - as though I was personally accusing them of being plague carriers.

It's a fundamental shift in social norms. And it feels weird. I wonder if it will continue?

3 thoughts on “Not Shaking Hands Feels Weird

  1. Thanks for helping to establish new social norms.

    Today I went to buy bread at our local bakery, which now has a “one at a time in the shop” policy.

    In the queue outside, I was the only one observing the 2m distance. It felt weird.

    The person after me in the queue respected my request to keep their distance when I explained that I’m high risk.

    We will know that social distancing is working when everyone starts gap-queuing

  2. Dave Cridland says:

    Even inside Pando's offices, people offer a hand without thinking (or did before we switched to remote-first). And it is indeed awkward, but we've taken to making it less so by "taking on" the awkwardness - "Oh, gosh! We're not meant to do that anymore are we?". When I've had visitors to the office I explicitly warned them in advance about the lack of handshake in the directions email (and also point out hand-washing facilities).

    However, foot bumps and elbow knocks annoy me more than the lack of handshake. They both look daft and I can't imagine a foot bump being trivial if you're even slightly infirm. I'll stick with the Vulcan salute, thanks.

  3. Marcus Downing says:

    I've always felt that hand-shaking, particularly among business contacts, had a degree of power play to it. You step into each other's personal space and measure each other's masculinity through grip strength and dexterity, and judge if they're higher or lower than you on some testosteroney social ladder. It makes people feel excluded if they're physically weak, either through disability, age, gender, race or just generally.

    I won't be sorry to see it go.

    Among my friends (who are pretty much all geeks of some sort, and come in all shapes and sizes), non-physical greetings have been the norm for years. A wave, a Vulcan salute, a nod, something like that. The same way I don't feel the need to wear an expensive suit and carry a gold-embossed business card, I don't feel the need to physically touch somebody as part of greeting them.

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