The age of handshakes may be over — so how to seal the deal now?

Getty Images

In Washington, as in most of the country, handshakes matter — doing everything from helping to establish a relationship, to sealing a legislative deal, to strengthening the bond between friends and allies. They are the physical greetings that accompany your words and help you to form a personal branding perspective. As former President H.W. Bush noted: “It is possible to tell things by a handshake. I like the ‘looking in the eye’ syndrome. It conveys interest. I like the firm, though not bone-crushing, shake. The bone-crusher is trying too hard to ‘macho it.’ The clammy or diffident handshake — fairly or unfairly — gets me off to a bad start with a person.”

The handshake is a simple act but, as we all know, hard to do well, resulting in news coverage from time to time of awkward moments involving handshakes — or the lack thereof.

Every trip to Capitol Hill necessarily includes countless handshakes along the way — and, sometime in the not too distant future, we hope the Hill again will swarm with members of Congress, staff, lobbyists, fundraisers and fly-in attendees. But now what are we to do when we finally are face-to-face with one another, after months of national lockdown and social distancing? As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said, in order to help stop the spread of germs, “As a society, just forget about shaking hands, we don’t need to shake hands.”

Given that politics and handshakes have gone together like July 4 and apple pie, this transition will be an adjustment. Many people don’t want to initiate a handshake now, and want to know how to politely decline one as well. 

You do both by minding your manners. Manners never change. Being well-mannered means you follow the “Golden Rule,” by treating others the way you would like to be treated. You treat others with kindness and respect; that hasn’t changed.   

What does change is society’s rules of etiquette. They evolve over time, depending on the needs of society — think everything from calling cards with the appropriate corner dog-eared depending on the message you wanted to leave, to telephone etiquette with our ubiquitous cellphone use. The time has come when our society is rethinking proper handshake etiquette and calibrating it for the situation at hand. We need to navigate this evolution of handshaking etiquette with tact and grace.

With shaking hands falling out of favor — for how long, who knows? — people are seeking out options and have come up with everything from bumping elbows, to doing a fist pump, offering a gingerly wave, resorting to a two-handed jazz-hand performance, and even “shaking feet.” To say we are in a bit of an awkward phase is an understatement.  

Unfortunately, when we feel unsure of ourselves, we tend to touch our faces. It signals a lack of confidence. And, let’s face it, when you are trying to influence others on Capitol Hill, you need to look the part — confident — to get others to follow you.

The best thing to do is to pick what works for you and consistently do it. If we do this, we all will be more comfortable and confident in our actions. When we confidently handle ourselves in these situations, we will look better, feel better and get more accomplished. 

If someone extends their hand but you don’t want to reciprocate, it’s important to use body language to convey confidence, warmth and kindness in place of that handshake while not offending anyone. Instead, give a little bit more space between you and the other person so a handshake is a bit more difficult to complete. Normally, in the U.S., we provide 2 feet to 4 feet of personal space. Thankfully, today’s 6 feet of social distancing will create space between us.

Maintain eye contact, smile warmly, and use your voice tone to politely and enthusiastically greet them along with a slight nod of your head. As you do this, you have some options: Keep your arms firmly down by your side, or keep your hands clasped behind your back; hold your right hand over your heart and add a slight bow; or hold something in your right hand like a clutch, briefcase, iPad or even your other hand, so it is otherwise preoccupied and less apt to automatically pop out for that handshake. 

Whichever approach you adopt, the other person should quickly pick up the silent but polite signal that you aren’t comfortable shaking hands. If they keep their hand extended you may then say in a kind tone with an apologetic smile, “As a precaution, my rule is no handshaking for now.” Unless they are living under a rock, they’ll know why. 

The key is to graciously, consistently and confidently maintain your preferred method of greeting with everyone you encounter in the workplace; you want to avoid being selectively worried about some people’s germs and not about others. Instead, be well-mannered by being consistent with your personal greetings during this time of transition.

Catherine C. Wallace worked for 10 years on Capitol Hill on the staff of U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and in several positions within the Office of the Clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is a partner with Marvelously Well-Mannered, which provides civility and business etiquette training in Washington. 

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Etiquette Handshaking Pat Roberts

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Healthcare News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video