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Cultural Competence: Reconsidering the Handshake

The global spread of the H1N1 influenza virus in 2009 led many to worry about the risks of hand-to-hand contact. That’s one reason why some businesspeople are open to new, more culturally inclusive options. Yet others decry the suggestion that changes be made to a cherished business ritual.

“With a workplace not quite ready for the fashionable fist bump or overzealous chest thump, there are few appropriate, germ-free alternatives to the dignified executive handshake,” said Dan Cafaro, publisher at Atticus Books in the Washington, D.C., area. “Direct eye contact accompanied by a smile and a small pleasantry should be enough, yet it seems we Americans are hard-wired to squeeze palms as if to assure the other of our sincere intentions.”

“A handshake connects you to the person and tells you something about them,” Alan Burchette, owner of Dream Web Designs in Atlanta, told SHRM Online. “In a generation where phone conversations have turned into text messages and people communicate through a screen, it's good to have some good, old-fashioned interaction.”

Bob McIntosh, CPRW, a career counselor and résumé writer in the Boston area, gave a resounding “hell no” to the idea of eliminating the handshake as a business custom. “The handshake is one of the only ways to gauge someone's integrity,” he explained. “I can learn as much about a person as I could by looking into his/her eyes.

“A firm, hand-wrapping handshake with a three-second release or a nice, not-so-hard clench earns my respect,” he said. However, he greatly dislikes limp or sweaty hands.

“I like a good firm handshake and go by the old school. … A weak handshake kind of turns me off,” said Mary Nurrenbrock, owner of Product Management Resources in Dayton, Ohio. “I think the handshake is such a centuries-old custom that it would be hard to change even though we do have a very multicultural country.”

Yet others disagree.

“There is too much weight given to handshaking in a job search that can be an immediate deal-breaker for an otherwise well-qualified candidate,” said Linda K. Rolie, owner of Career Counseling Services in Medford, Ore., particularly if the candidate’s hand is too moist or limp. “Handshaking is not a sanitary practice,” she added. “Whether it is in a business environment, church, private party or elsewhere, I would prefer that it be removed as a greeting behavior.”

Alternative Forms of Greeting

Rey San Pascual, a global demand manager at a health care company in the San Francisco area, prefers “a hybrid of the Chinese bow” in which a person bends forward slightly while bringing the hands together in front of the chest with the left palm on top of the right fist. This is followed by a slight nod with a smile while looking at the other person’s eyes. “It's respectful and hygienic,” he told SHRM Online. “You are able to imbue as much warmth as you want into the greeting with your facial expression while avoiding needless physical contact, which can pass on germs.”

“One of the ancient ways of greeting people is from Indian culture [and involves] folding your hands in front of the person and saying ‘Namaste’,” said Raution Jaiswal, a consultant for the Oregon Department of Revenue. “It is in response to the idea that I see a god in everyone and so I greet him and give my reverence by folding my hands.”

Phyllis Hartman, SPHR, president of the HR firm PGHR Consulting, Inc., in Pittsburgh, agrees that a bow is a good alternative to a handshake for several reasons: “I have osteoarthritis in my hands, and when I get a handshake that is too firm it results in some pain,” she said.

Theresa Jennings, a graphic artist in the greater Los Angeles area, agrees. “A firm handshake of my arthritic hands will bring me to my knees and cause me to gasp in pain,” she told SHRM Online. “Do I want to do business with someone who causes me excruciating pain to show how powerful they are and will judge my fitness to do business because of my weak handshake? My hands are weak. My mind is not.”

“I once shook the hand of a woman who had frail hands, soft and thin, with prominent blue veins,” McIntosh acknowledged. “As I normally would, I grasped her hand with a great deal of force. I could swear I heard her bones crack, and she winced in pain.

“And, with the return of many of our vets with extremity injuries, the hand may be injured or even missing,” Hartman stated.

“The handshake is a sign of respect and honor, and no one should be excluded,” McIntosh added. “If you feel queasy about shaking hands with someone who is missing limbs, keep in mind that you are fortunate to have all ten fingers and toes. Those who are unfortunate deserve to be acknowledged as much as the next person.”

Yet some suggest that the ritual must be preserved.

“We may create alternate kinds of greeting but will never replace a handshake completely, just as no supercomputer would ever match the intricacy of the human brain,” said Kamna Vij, a technical content developer for an engineering design firm in India.

Cultural Considerations

Though cultures have different forms of greeting used around the world, the handshake is by no means a strictly Western practice, experts say.

“Considering its established widespread use and understanding, I wouldn't consider the handshake as an attempt to assimilate other cultures into Western ideals,” said Nhia Yang, an HR professional in the Portland, Ore., area. “Even in my own native culture—Hmong—which tends to be rather isolationist in nature, the handshake was an essential part of any and all greetings. To not shake someone's hand was considered extremely rude.”

“If you were a male walking into a room of other males, you had to go around and shake every single man's hand and offer them a greeting,” Yang explained. “In addition, upon departing, the same ritual was expected.”

“Handshakes create a very individual experience and no other greeting other than a hug offers the same dexterity, sensitivity, grace and versatility as a natural handshake. Business handshakes reveal a lot about the personality and the current state of mind of an individual and can be leveraged to steer the conversation that follows,” said Vij.

“The Namaste greeting is warm and respectful, no doubt, but the significance of human touch cannot be undermined in a greeting,” Vij added.

Dean Foster, president of Dean Foster Associates, a global intercultural consulting and training firm, said that the handshake is a commonly accepted business practice when interacting with those from other cultures. However, most people are comfortable with what they know and what they were brought up with, he added.

For example, with the exception of “non-touching cultures” such as China, Japan and Korea, the world is “a lot more physical” than the U.S., according to Foster. This means that a handshake might be followed by an embrace, an air kiss or a hand rested on an arm, as well as closer personal space than might be comfortable. “Americans get uncomfortable when their hands are held too long,” Foster said. “We interpret that as being too familiar and intending things that are not intended.

“Gender plays a role, as does hierarchy,” Foster noted, meaning that men will not be as physical with female colleagues and that junior people will not be as physical with senior people.

Hierarchy and cultural differences can affect the amount of eye contact exchanged during a handshake.For example, junior-level people from Mediterranean, Latin, Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian cultures might extend their hand or wait to extend and then avert their eyes, Foster added.

Those who understand cultural variations—such as the preference for a soft handshake in Japan or when it’s appropriate to avert one’s eyes—might have an advantage over competitors, Foster added.

For example, in Korea a slight bow is accompanied by the extending of a soft hand with the left hand supporting the right hand at the elbow. “It shows extra sincerity,” Foster explained.

Another variation, used in Southeast Asia, is to extend a soft right hand and then place the left hand over the other person’s hand to cup it. “Then you bring your right hand back to your heart and drop your left hand,” Foster said.

“And the traditional Muslim greeting is to touch your forehead, then heart and then extend an open palm,” he said.

The Impact of Gender

Susan Shwartz, Ph.D., a financial marketing writer with Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. in New York, said she was brought up believing that it was the lady’s prerogative as to whether or not to extend a hand in greeting. However, she was quick to add: “If someone extends his hand, I'll take it.”

“I do believe that there may be a U.S. gender bias related to handshakes,” Hartman said. “I remember being advised by mentors early in my career that, as a woman, it was very important that I offer my hand and have a firm handshake if I wanted to be successful in a male-dominated business world.”

Cafaro agreed that the desire to make a strong first impression with a firm handshake could be gender-related. “It may be the male's inclination toward one-upmanship that's responsible for the difference,” he speculated. “But it's more likely that men just have more experience in the ritual of a father teaching his son the ‘proper’ way to grip and shake another person’s hand. It's an honor thing passed down from our forefathers.”

However, a handshake should be customized to fit the recipient.

“When meeting someone new, I look to see if they are offering to shake my hand or simply ask them [if they wish to],” said Lynn Woods, program facilitator at the Industrial Accident Prevention Association in Toronto, Canada. “No one yet appears to have been offended, and some have thanked me for asking.”

Observant Muslims and orthodox Jews do not touch those of the opposite sex. “As a man, if I were greeting a Muslim woman, I probably wouldn’t extend my hand.”

Foster’s advice? “Learn this stuff. The more you know the more advantages you can have.”

However, for the uninitiated, a few simple rules apply. Keep the handshake soft when dealing with those from East Asia, Foster said, and get used to greater physicality. And when meeting someone of the opposite gender, avoid extending your hand first.

As for Foster, if he could pick his choice of greetings it would include a smile, a slight lowering of the head and a soft handshake.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​


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