Monday, July 26, 2010


As I grew up in the post World War II era, women didn't shake hands with each other; furthermore, the etiquette books of the time stated that men should not offer to shake the hand of a woman unless she volunteered and women need not shake hands with each other at all as a socially-accepted practice. Up front, I will declare that I dislike the custom of handshaking.

According to my research, evidence exists that handshaking is a very old practice for the purpose of peacemaking and proving that a person carried no weapons. How did it morph into a daily necessity in this country in the work and social environment? Handshaking customs in countries and cultures around the world vary greatly. When traveling into exotic cultures, tourists have to be informed and alert to local customs.

In the U.S. handshaking is rampant and hard to avoid. For one with a minor case of germophobia, the fact is that H1N1 influenza is firmly among us; hand washing is important, but how many people bother? According to the New York Times, in several studies, it has been shown that many people don't wash their hands after using the bathroom. More women than men are proven to be conscientious hand washers but both groups have large percentages of non-washers. When someone thrusts their hand at me, the first thought in my head is, "What did you last touch and therefore want to transfer to me?" I'm not developing OCD in my dotage, but I'm informed enough to know that handshaking is unsanitary even if folks think you're neurotic. Having spent my adult life with hundreds of school children, the joke around my house was: "Mom has her fall cold."

If spinach contamination with E.coli can bring down a nation-wide industry, why are we walking around shaking hands with each other and sharing who knows what? In the years before bacteria was discovered, people were dying in hospitals not from their illness, but from acquired bacterial infections. Some of those germs were acquired from careless medical workers. When I go to my dentist, I expect to see him wash his hands, not put out his hand to shake mine. Use your words, not your hands.

Beyond the obvious health implications of handshaking, there is a whole body language situation at work in this oft-repeated ritual. Endless books and articles advise people how to do the effective communication needed in a handshake in a job interview or in the workplace--no limp wrists, sweaty hands, or cold fish handshakes. If the guys want to trade handshakes and shoulder bumps like two dogs establishing the Alpha Male dynamic, whatever. When the men shake hands with women, it becomes the whole male dominance issue, Mars/Venus struggle. When it comes to women shaking hands with other women, it just seems creepy.

Queen Elizabeth wears gloves and I often long for that custom to return. George Washington mythology claims he considered handshaking to be a practice of the "common" man and did not shake hands at all. He preferred to bow and speak to people. My preference doesn't include bowing, but simply a verbal greeting and eye contact. I never volunteer to shake a hand. I often manage to have my hands occupied in a way that discourages others from initiating a handshake--hands in pockets, behind the back, holding a cold drink or holding a pile of papers or books. I like to eliminate the power struggle issue and the interpretation people place on the handshake. Having read "The person who initiates a handshake establishes dominance," I like to do an end run around the whole situation because I don't want to shake hands in the first place. Unfortunately, it seems to be here to stay and I will invest in Purell manufacturers, Johnson and Johnson.


  1. R.J. This blog intrigues me - here in the UK it is not unusual for women to shake hands when being introduced for the first time - in fact the one who sticks her mitt out first is deemed to be a friendly person..nowadays alot of arm holding and back slapping accompanies a handshake, and the thing I really hate cheek pressing and airkissing is all the vogue. Unless its a dear friend I do not want to embraced in a bear hug and slobbered over - maybe I am just a cold fish!

  2. You're not a cold fish and neither am I, just practical. I also like to keep people at arm's length, but I'm not unfriendly, I just don't like presumptuousness. I like people to treat others as equals without all the falderal.

  3. I totally agree with you! I can usually get out of a handshake by declaring that I've got a virus and out of respect for the person, I decline. And I'm sure I've got plenty of viruses, so it's not exactly a fib.

    I carry disinfectant wipes and wash my hands all the time, doorknobs also creep me out. And I don't think I'm germophobic, just practical!!

  4. R.J. you will now think me so ignorant - I had never seen or heard the word "falderal" before - its so lovely; now I will have to try and slip it into my conversations. Thank you (never too old to learn)

  5. Not to worry, you're in good company. I didn't know what it meant either but it popped into my head and I had to look up the meaning before I could use it with confidence. I have no idea from whence it sprang, but I like it too. It must have stuck from somewhere in those hundreds of books I read.

  6. oh my i SO agree with this. i am a germophobe for sure. i hate to touch money, doorknobs, shopping carts, menus, and other people! cards, poker chips, it goes on and on with me. i carry so much hand sanitizer!

    to answer your questions, no, i am not a brit, just a retired grandma that has many hobbies and loves to cruise!!!

    thanks for visiting. come back any time, i post every day at midnight.

    smiles, bee

  7. I remember the days when only men automatically shook hands, all that macho stuff back then I thought. I did like that a man was not supposed to instigate a hand shake with a woman; the woman made the first move or not as she wished. Very good writing in your post. If we all walked around with our own message on a tee shirt like "I don't shake hands" or "How do I know where your hands have been, don't try to shake my hand, Mofo" maybe we could stop the practice. Of course people in the office place don't wear tee shirts so they would have to have badges made. I agree with you and I for one do not shake hands with anyone except my hubby. One of our little rituals is if we disagree about something, get a little ouchy and have a sort of heated discussion, oh all right when we have a fight, we shake hands for a truce and move on.

  8. I don't mind shaking hands on first meeting but I prefer to hug my friends. :)