24

TL;DR: I don't like to shake hands and I'm looking for suggestions about how to turn people down without seeming rude or stand-offish; or how to prevent a handshake gesture from being initiated at all.

Personal background: I live in the UK, am British, and have grown up in a "typical" White-Western culture. I'm 30-years-old. These facts may or may not be relevant to people's choice of answer.

No general problems with germs as a rule; some mild social anxiety on occasion unrelated to hand-shaking, but nothing of concern; some mild difficulties with social interaction that a few people (in a non-professional capacity) have likened to resembling a mild form of autism.

Details of Dilemma: I don't enjoy physical contact with most people, particularly strangers. At the top of the list of physical social interactions that I find unpleasant—to the extent that it makes me uncomfortable or sometimes upset—is hand-shaking (sadly, something that most often occurs when meeting someone for the first time). To be clear, I have no negative feelings about others shaking hands—seeing it take place doesn't offend me. I just do not wish to have to do it myself, although I'm not incapable of obliging someone and remaining outwardly unfazed, despite inwardly recoiling.

I think it's reasonable to say that there is a societal expectation/pressure to accept someone's handshake.

My three main modes of action, in the order of most-to-least commonly performed, are:

  1. Accept the handsake, and the negative feelings it generates inside me.
  2. Directly decline, stating that "I do not shake hands". This would be a great option were it always as successful as I would wish it to be. A few rare individuals seem to respond well, out of respect or admiration for having asserted my preference against an accepted norm. But, more often, it creates an awkward response in the other person, leaving them not knowing what to think or say to that. It likely creates a poor first impression for these people, who I tend to feel are then less likely to want to engage with me socially thereafter.
  3. Ignore the offer, pretending as though I did not see them extend their hand (perhaps timing it with a turn away to point out something as a distraction). This is basically a lie of omission, which is fine; somewhat cowardly perhaps; but something I'm quite unskilled at doing effectively and making it look natural.

Questions:

  • Is there anything I could or ought to be doing differently in order to minimise the risk of causing offence or dissuading others from wishing to engage with me further ?
  • Are there any good strategies to prevent handshaking from being offered in the first place ?
  • Does anyone else share my dislike of this social practice ?

Don't feel obliged to answer each and every itemised question. A general response is fine, too. I broke it down for clarity. Thank you in advance for any insight people have to offer.

  • 5
    What specifically bothers you about shaking hands? The physical sensation, the awkwardness, the quasi intimate nature of being touched? The answer to this may have more to do with why it irks you. – apaul Dec 23 '17 at 6:28
  • 3
    Of possible interest: Workplace, Mi Yodeya, another Workplace. None of those are "global" avoidance, though. – Monica Cellio Dec 24 '17 at 2:07
30

I knew a guy who put both of his palms together in front of his chest - like praying - and then bowed in front of the other person.

He did get strange looks, but the other person usually responded with a bow and shaking hands was never considered.

By folding hands, he signaled on an implicit level he didn‘t have a hand free for shaking.

  • 1
    This has the additional advantage of suggesting that you come from a culture that doesn't shake hands and that you deeply respect the person who you're refusing to shake hands with. – empty Mar 20 at 23:02
15

I'm going to answer this from an aspie perspective, because that's my experience and it kinda sounds like that may be relevant here.

I didn't know I was autistic till I was 29. I was raised with a typical western, working class "you know a man by his handshake" model. Being aspie this always seemed odd to me, but I've learned that it does tell you certain things about someone. Calloused hands usually tell you a little about someone's line of work. As do things like pressure, aggression, timing, and so on.

Being aspie, I realize that sometimes there's difficulty in processing sensory information on top of social/verbal information. I'm asking my brain to do gymnastics by giving it all of this new information at the same time. It gets easier with practice.

It's not something that I do intuitively, it was a learned skill. One of the first things I learned in my family is that these things are important to some people and they'll be inclined to judge you on it. Not saying that's right, or fair, just saying that they do.

So your options for dealing with a handshake issue/problem, while maintaining mutual respect, end up being:

  • Openly declining
  • Learning a new skill

Personally I find that the learning new skills approach helps me to navigate the neurotypical world.

For me, very often, understanding why people do these things helps me to deal with my feelings about them. In the case of handshakes, it's a bit like dogs sniffing butts. Sort of a human way of saying:

I'm going to drop my guard momentarily, so that you can get to know a little more about me.

Much like sniffing, both parties in a handshake are exchanging sensory information about each other. Some will try to portray certain qualities in a handshake, but in my experience, false flags are pretty obvious.


I guess what I'm getting at is that this aversion to shaking hands is something that can be overcome with practice, and that you can learn a little bit about people by doing it.

If you absolutely must avoid it. Be direct and honest about why you're avoiding it. Because that sends a message as well.

Handshakes are all about nonverbal communication, something that autistic people tend to have a hard time with. If you can't do it, find another way to convey that information.

One thing that always helped me to reconcile my personal feelings about handshakes was the thought "At least they didn't try to hug"

  • 2
    Frankly, I’d rather someone sniffed me. To answer your query above about why I have an aversion, I don’t honestly know, but I can theorise that it’s linked to being a highly sensitive person in general. As a result, all of my senses are generally much more acute that are other people’s, which makes me very susceptible to bright lights, unpleasant sounds, and people’s natural body scent. I suspect my aversion to touch is linked to this. Thank you for your answer—it’s most insightful to hear from someone on the spectrum. – CJK Dec 26 '17 at 9:25
9

Be the person who steers the introduction

My background and situation in western Canada are similar to yours. The method that causes me the least stress, by far, is to place my right hand over my heart and nod once while smiling. This gesture is simple and friendly, and it allows me to take charge of my side of the introduction by showing the other person how I am comfortable interacting. I've found that people who have extended a hand to shake mine are quick to "switch gears" (in the friendly sense!) when I set this example.

The options you listed -- to accept/decline/ignore the handshake -- all require you to cede control of your interaction and take a defensive stance, and I know that I would find that to be an ongoing source of stress.

Before I began using the hand-over-heart gesture, people would often interpret my discomfort at shaking hands as a germ phobia. With the best of intentions, these people would then try to find some other innocent way to touch me in greeting: a fist bump, a touch to the arm, that sort of thing. Since these forms of contact are as unpleasant to me as handshakes, they caused me to show similar tension in response, and I'm afraid that my reaction reaffirmed any unfriendly first impression that my response to the handshake conveyed.

I don't mind talking to people about how I like to keep to my own space, but this explanation takes more time than a one-on-one introduction allows, and so I avoid it at first meetings.

I recommend against telling white lies such as "I don't want to give you my cold." Some well-meaning people will ask follow-up questions, especially if you repeat a white lie from an earlier meeting.

6

I am going to build on the excellent answer of @apaul, and give you the perspective of a non-autistic person. (culture: US, WASP, highly educated.)

As someone who offers my hand frequently, I would be offended if someone followed your Option 3 -- pretending not to see my offered hand. This would seem to me like a snub. You say you are unskilled at Option 3, and I don't think anyone but a superb actor could pull of Option 3 convincingly. Forget about Option 3.

However, I would be distressed if I sensed that shaking my hand caused a person real discomfort. And I'm pretty sure I would sense that, because I am attuned to even faint signals from other people, as are many if not most neurotypicals.

Thus, I think your two options are, as apaul said, to try to overcome your aversion (easier said than done), or to be straightforward, and say that you are mildly autistic and shaking hands is difficult for you. But I advise against a bald statement "I don't shake hands". That makes you sound as though you think you are superior, and would be off-putting. Giving a reason of being mildly autistic would be, to me, impressive.

However, some people will not even understand what you are saying, and if you are mildly autistic you may have difficulty figuring out who will be sympathetic and who will not.

Thus, I think you should try some form of aversion therapy to overcome what could become a serious handicap in the workplace. I wish you well!

4

I've had similar issues in the past, and I've known a few people who have a similar issue.

What I've done, and what I've seen other people do, is offer a fist-bump instead. It signals "I'd like to do something like a handshake, I recognize it's important, but I can't do a handshake - I'd like to offer this alternative." Usually gets accepted without it being brought up later, or the other party acting offended.

  • 1
    Something you could add to this is an explanation why the fist bump is preferable to a handshake. E.g. a fist bump is a lot more fleeting of a contact than handshakes, so probably more acceptable to OP than a handshake. Otherwise, great answer - this is exactly what I do when I don't want to shake hands. – BlackThorn Apr 17 '18 at 21:39
4

The reason why ‘I don't shake hands’ by itself does not work is that it is not clear why you don't. Is it because touching makes you anxious... or is it that you feel that shaking hands is for equals, and you are these people's superior...

Avoid this. Make it clear that it's just a quirk of yours, rather than a disdain for them.

Say, ‘Sorry, I have a thing about shaking hands,’ or whatever wording you find gets them to understand that you're a bit Aspie. People are familiar with the concept. Just don't pretend not to see their hand (they know you've seen it) or do anything else blatantly insulting.

4

I am French, living in France. The country of the morning handshakes, where everyone spends an hour wandering from office to office to shake hands or have the bise (one, two, three or four air kisses between men and women).

I positively hate both of these. There are no particular reasons for that (no religious, germ related or anything else).

So I decided to gradually lower the amount of handshakes by proactively saying hello without shaking hands, or just wave hello.

It worked. People in my office finally accepted this as a fact of life, some of them were making a bit of (good-hearted) fun about that - which paradoxically helped the others to just accept that I do not shake hands all the time.

Now when they shake hands, they skip me (or not, it depends on the day) and the amount of hand shaking is reduced to almost zero. Same for the bise.

2

I find shaking hands displeasing too, but not for the reasons indicated. I do because I think it's misleading. In interviews, it seems to imply mutual confidence, support or agreement, the willingness to strike a deal, when in fact all of those can be absent, and the act of shaking hands be just a mannerism, part of the mise en scène (like things people wear).

There are alternatives to shaking hands and ways to avoid it. You could wear gloves (I imagine white, delicate, almost transparent gloves). You would still hand-shake but without skin contact. You could fake a bandage or sling so that your arm will stay still (unless the interview would include a written test, or you feel uncomfortable with it). You could carry something in your hand you don't let go, like a folder under your arm. Failing all that, you could practice shaking hands with your left hand. Practice till it becomes automatic. You'll find either the handshake won't take place (no hands will meet), or if they do extend their left hand to you, they'll feel as uncomfortable as you, maybe even more, and that'll serve them well and teach them how uncomfortable shaking hands can be.

There are other things you could jockingly. You could do a martial salute. You could do Spock's Vulcan salute. You could wear a hat and use it in various ways. There are very elegant ways a hat can be used. You could give them a direct glance, a wink, raise your eyebrows. Use any of this as a greeting rather quickly, and quickly move on to the next phase, maybe open up the conversation, to signal clearly that the greeting is over.

As for me I've successfully avoided shaking hands with interviewers just by keeping my distance. I find few people would walk forward three steps for a handshake, most will remain where they are. If when entering the room and leaving it you make a decisive move to increase the distance or put a table between the two of you, even a chair, or if you'll be leaving, open the door and face sideways (anywhere except towards them), that can dissuade most people. Being seen to assertively and purposely walk around and take a position might even be seen as a positive.

There's no need to accept other people's unwritten rules if you don't want to, even widespread rules. You can also make the rules wherever you go.

1

I like many of the answers offered here, especially the ones where you do a different respectful gesture of greeting. However, here are a few strategies for deterring handshakes, though they require some planning.

If you are going to an event (especially a professional one), can you enlist an ally to stay with you at the beginning, when introductions are most likely to take place?

  • If they stand directly to your right, it might make it more awkward for people to lean across them to shake your hand, and might make it more natural to have a nod or a wave instead with the introduction.
  • Or if you avoid shaking hands in front of the ally, your ally's normal reaction to your behavior will guide the new person to act normally, as well.

In some situations, you could plan to hold something in both hands. If you hold things and do not rearrange them to be able to shake hands, this should deter people from insisting on shaking hands.

  • At many social occasions, this could be a plate in one hand and a glass or a fork in the other. An awkward shrug or a smile, or even, "Sorry I can't shake your hand" can be helpful if the person seems to really want to shake your hand, but you can probably even just go ahead with saying, "It is so nice to meet you, [name]."
  • Can you get a briefcase-style bag that you typically hold in your right hand? (With or without something else taking up your left hand?)

Relying on "circumstances" like this that make it a poor opportunity to shake hands will reduce the pressure you get to shake hands, and it will give you more time and social space to decline politely. The downside is that some people may perceive you as unprepared for the situation, awkward, clumsy, or perhaps rude (if it would take very little effort to switch something to the other hand or move to shake hands). However, it seems like those potential negative reactions are a smaller risk than the potential negative reactions to strategies 2 or 3 you suggested.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.