Business Etiquette: Not Shaking Hands

A few months ago, we had the pleasure of attending a fancy networking event in Europe. It was lovely, and they had free food, too -- you can't beat a great networking event with free food, but we digress. Many politicians and representatives of the European Union were in attendance as well, and we were delighted to enjoy a nice evening with them. During the course of the evening, we ran into a somewhat uncomfortable situation and wanted to share it with all of you to get your input and ideas.

Networking in fancy places. The Wolseley in London.
We were walking up to the hotel's (very fancy) bathrooms, and a well-respected legislator came out of the bathroom. We had met him before and wanted to say hello. He clearly recognized and was happy to see us. In accordance with Central European tradition, we moved closer to shake his hand. However, he quickly pulled back his hand, apologizing profusely that they were still wet after washing them. Now, for those of you who have lived or done business in Central Europe, you know that the handshake is a key element of social and professional interaction, and refusing to shake hands (even it it's for a good reason)  makes all parties uncomfortable and starts the conversation off on the wrong foot, which is what happened in this case. We didn't quite know how to act, as hugging the legislator was not an option, nor was patting him on the shoulder. He clearly felt awkward, too, and kept on apologizing about his wet hands. We kept on thinking that he could have prevented this entire situation by simply drying his hands well before leaving the bathroom. This not-shaking-hands scenario has also happened to one of our lovely colleagues, who wanted to shake a professor's hand at an industry event, but the professor did not shake hands, alleging that she was sick and did not want to spread the germs. That's a good point, but it's probably best to stay home if you are truly sick.

How would you have handled this situation, dear colleagues? It might seem pretty minor, and it is, but it's one of those awkward moments that can be tough to handle professionally. We did not end up having the lengthy conversation with the legislator that we had planned on having, as it just felt all wrong -- amazing what a non-handshake can do. We'd love to hear your thoughts!




13 comments:

Dimitra said...

Very interesting read :) Ηandshake is a key element of social and professional interaction in Greece too. I think that in your case it was just a matter of bad timing (bumping into each other right as he came out of the bathroom). To be honest, I've been guilty of saying this myself, but it's always been a genuine excuse. I find it rude not to shake hands with someone.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 28, 2014 at 10:00 AM said...

@Dimitra: Thanks for reading and for commenting! We much prefer the Greek way of kisses and hugs, but unfortunately, that's just not that common in other parts of the world, so we will have to stick wto the handshake. And we agree: it's rude not to shake hands. Making mental note to always dry our hands off very well after washing them.

FH on March 3, 2014 at 10:59 AM said...

Interesting situation! Perhaps another view of this might be to have discreetly greeted the legislator and asked to talk shortly thereafter? I sometimes feel a little off guard when leaving a restroom and maybe giving him an "out" would have saved face for all of you, and would have let his hands dry. He may have been in a hurry or had other things on his mind at the time and catching him off guard may have set up a doomed conversation. Sometimes sticking to the formality doesn't always lead to a rewarding exchange. Just a thought...

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 3, 2014 at 2:27 PM said...

@FH: Thanks for reading -- excellent point here. Yo are quite right that it's a bit uncomfy when one is just leaving the restroom, and we did think about that for sure. However, everything happened so quickly that we didn't even have time to think. These situations can be challenging indeed, and we really like your idea of coming back later when everyone is more comfortable. We will keep that in mind for next time for sure!

Josh Goldberg said...

A while back, I was fighting off a cold when I was scheduled to interpret for a court session. I was not too sick to cancel, but I also knew I wouldn't be doing anyone any favors by shaking their hands (and this was a court where I was very well known). This was the last court session of the year, and sure enough, many of the lawyers and police officers approached me to wish me all the best for the new year and shake my hand. In each case, I told them I was fighting off a cold and wanted to keep my germs to myself. This was intended as a courtesy to them, and I hope they appreciated it (I know I would if they roles were reversed).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 10, 2014 at 10:10 AM said...

@Josh: Thanks for reading and for commenting, Josh! You make an excellent point indeed, and we are sure every person in the building was happy they did not get sick. Wise decision!

Jeff Alfonso on March 20, 2014 at 10:57 AM said...

Sadly, I cannot refuse a handshake. I am also getting sick quite often. I need to carry around some baby wipes and antibacterial gel. :)

Francesca said...

I am Italian, and I find this episode somewhat puzzling as I would perceive any "refusal" due to wet hands, a cold or any other reasonable explanation as an act of politeness, and I would appreciate it as such. I'd say in Italy hygiene concerns prevail over social etiquette any time ;-)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 31, 2014 at 2:43 PM said...

@Jeff: Yes, bring on the baby wipes and antibacterials gels! Those really are great inventions. :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 31, 2014 at 2:43 PM said...

@Francesca: Excellent point about cultural differences. Many thanks for sharing it!

Anniux on April 22, 2014 at 10:20 AM said...

I have been in situations where my hands are slightly wet (no dryer/towel in bathroom) so I apologize for the wet hands, shake off as much water as I can and shake hands. It is an awkward moment indeed, but I think it's more awkward if you don't return the hand shake. However, some of the comments provided on this dilemma are making me think. Great topic.

language translation said...

Your character reflects the way you do shake hands. Like for example, you use a very firm grip it may reflect that you are angry with that person. And a hand shake also is a first impression you can give in the person's intellect.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on May 19, 2014 at 9:09 AM said...

@Anniux: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts -- great stuff. We've been thinking about maybe carrying a mini-towel in our purses just in case there is no dryer or no hand towels in the bathroom, but that does seem like too much trouble.... :)

@Language Translation: Absolutely. No one likes the limp fish handshake.

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