What to Do If You Don't Like Shaking Hands

If you prefer not to shake hands, this advice is for you. Handshaking is still the gold standard of professional greetings, but there are some alternatives. Lisa B, Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, explains.  

Lisa B. Marshall
3-minute read

On the Topic of Fist Bumps

I received the following audio question from a reader of my book, Smart Talk:  "Do you have advice for people that don’t like to shake hands?" Since this was an anonymous recorded message I wasn’t able to to ask him why he didn't like to shake hands.   

If the primary concern was germs, then instead of a handshake, I would recommend a fist bump—that’s when two people lightly tap the front of their fists together. This respectful and somewhat celebratory greeting has been found by medical studies to spread fewer germs than handshakes. In fact, there are some hospitals that advocate a handshake free zone and instead suggest fist bumps. Of course, even fewer germs would be spread with a small wave of the hand, a slight bow, a causal salute (two extended fingers with two curled fingers), or a hand over your heart. I've tried all of these alternatives at different times when I was feeling ill, but no matter which one I chose, I have always felt a little awkward. I usually feel the need to also say something like: "I’m really sorry I can’t shake your hand—I don’t want to get you sick.” 

Of those options, the fist bump is perhaps the most accepted alternative. In fact, it has been often reported that our president, Barack Obama, is a fan and common user of the fist bump; however, this behavior is much more common and accepted on a baseball field or boxing ring than it is in a business setting. It seems as if fist bumps are used in more casual settings and can signify more than a greeting. It can be a celebration or even an acknowledgment of agreement. I know I’ll fist bump my daughters and even “blow it up” (that’s when you pull back your hand and let your fingers wiggle) when we are fooling around, celebrating, and laughing.  

Researchers know that handshakes instill trust in others and communication experts generally recommend the use of handshakes to create strong first impressions as well as a way to maintain ongoing relationships. In my workshops, I regularly recommend that business professionals get in the habit of daily handshakes before and after meetings. Although I can’t really imagine using a fist bump as a replacement in very serious executive communications like a board meeting, I can imagine this sort of greeting at a Silicon Valley start-up, or perhaps in a music recording studio, or being used by pediatric physicians with their patients. Somehow, a fist bump, seems younger, hipper, cooler—maybe that’s why it seems uncomfortable for me! 

In general, touch releases oxytocin in the brain which in turn induces trust and bonding. In our house, it’s not unusual to hear me say, “I think somebody needs some oxytocin—come here, let me give you a hug!” I don’t know of any studies that compared the release of oxytocin (or the feelings of trust generated) from a fist bump, a handshake, and a hug.  But from my own experience, it seems that the longer the touch, the better the feeling. (Perhaps the more oxytocin is released?) 

I suspect until fist bumps become more common, a handshake will remain the preferred business greeting, but in your personal life, I say why not fist bump?  If your concern is touching period, then a slight bow of your head or small wave might be the next best choice.  Finally, it's important to note that others will find any behavior other than a handshake a bit odd, since handshakes, at least here in the US, are still considered the standard professional greeting. So you'll need to weigh the benefit to you versus the cost of choosing a non-standard behavior.   

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.