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How to Avoid Shaking Hands
With H1N1 on the rise, here are 5 ways to avoid shaking hands...respectfully.


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With H1N1 on the rise, here are 5 ways to avoid shaking hands...respectfully.


With the flu season in the immediate future and the threat of H1N1 looming over our heads, it is no surprise that people are asking, "Do I still have to shake hands?" A firm handshake has been a typical Western cultural greeting in business and social situations, a standard offering of the Sign of Peace at mass, and a congenial way to approach others as a sign of goodwill.

Sitting in church this past Sunday the priest made an announcement that until further notice the offering of a handshake or a hug was banned in an effort to deter the spread of H1N1. As people left the church the priest was visibly uncomfortable as he continued to apologize for the lack of hand-to-hand or hug-to-hug contact. This situation will certainly take some time to get used to as we all figure out what measure of greeting is comfortable and appropriate in theses current times.

Fortunately, we have a fallback thanks to President and Mrs. Obama, who shared a congratulatory "fist bump" after winning the Democratic nomination in 2008, therefore setting the stage for future knuckle tap greetings. Closer to home, for me personally, the headmaster of my son's school greets parents and students with the same knuckle bump. The greeting that was once reserved for athletes and frat parties has now taken on a new life thanks to the fear of H1N1 and various other diseases.

Here are some commonly asked questions regarding the etiquette of the handshake (or lack thereof) during the H1N1 scare:

1. "Do I have to shake hands at a job interview?" Your options are limited as you may potentially run the risk of offending the interviewer, therein losing the job opportunity. Your other option would be to shake hands, get through the interview without touching your face, nose, eyes or mouth and after the interview is over make a bee line to the nearest restroom to wash your hands or, at the very least, sanitize them with hand sanitizer. Of course, out of the interviewers sight.

2. "What should I do if someone offers me a handshake after I have seen them sneeze?" Consider saying, "Pardon my boldness but I am going to respectfully pass on the handshake for H1N1 reasons." Don't mention that you just caught them sneezing and wiping their nose with their right hand. Avoid sneezing or coughing into your own right hand and consider wearing a mask if you have a weak immune system or have flu symptoms and must be out in public.

3. "Is it customary to shake hands when someone approaches you at the dining table?" Proper etiquette dictates that anytime someone approaches you it is your responsibility to stand up and shake hands. However, I teach in my dining sessions that if you see someone you know at a restaurant, the most appropriate thing to do is gesture with a wave and keep walking. If you are afraid that they will think you are rude (trust me, they will be grateful you didn't approach the table!), follow up with a telephone call when you get back to the office or home, explaining that you didn't want to interrupt their meal.

4. "Do I still teach my child to shake hands with his elders or teachers?" Yes, discussing with your child that a handshake is a form of introduction and respect is still necessary. However, I suggest also talking to your child about hand washing and flu prevention measures. He or she may just follow the lead of the adult, and good sanitation can't hurt. More than likely, however, his or her teachers are aware of community wide diligence and have already been instructed on precautionary measures during this critical time.

5. "When I greet my doctor, should I shake hands?" I polled several doctors and the quick and resounding answer was "No." Although doctors go from one exam room to another, while also visiting multiple hospital rooms daily, those I spoke with preferred not to shake hands with each patient. They view this as an additional safeguard, even though they would soon be performing a physical examination. Many also commented on their frustration with drug reps that come into the office, marketing their particular drugs and wanting to shake hands as a greeting of hello and goodbye. The general consensus among the doctors I spoke with was, "please don't touch me". Of course, doctors also highly recommend getting the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

While it is virtually impossible to completely avoid human touch and physical interaction, the extent to which you touch another person, albeit a handshake, hug or kiss is based on your personal feelings, health and good judgment. Even during this highly charged state of medical alert, for many, refusing a handshake still sends a powerful message to the other person. Before you refuse a handshake, make sure you are ready to pay the price for insulting a client or offending your beloved grandmother while shunning her hugs and kisses.

Diane Gottsman, a nationally recognized etiquette expert, is the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in etiquette training for corporations, universities and individuals, striving to polish their interpersonal skills. You can reach Diane at 877-490-1077 or www.protocolschooloftexas.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @: www.twitter.com/DianeGottsman.

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