Business Etiquette and the Fate of the Handshake

Business Etiquette and the fate of the handshake

As a result of the ravaging effects of the COVD-19 pandemic and considering the anecdotal projections by U.S medical experts suggesting that social distancing may extend till 2022, the ubiquitous handshake is under a serious threat of extinction.

Except for a few countries where handshaking is regarded as culturally offensive, the handshake in business settings is historically an indication of the amicable completion of a business transaction or agreement.

Rarely would you attend a business etiquette training without the facilitator taking participants through the techniques of a good handshake. This, we have learnt repeatedly, would help to make a strong first impression and coupled with other desirable etiquette practices and excellent negotiation skills would ensure the deal is sealed.

Will the handshake, a globally accepted mode of greeting simply disappear in the face of the current pandemic? Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker opined in a recent CNN interview that, “it is safe to say that the handshake may be doomed if the current contagion continues.”

Furthermore one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci made bold to suggest that “we may never shake hands again” which pre-supposes that other acceptable modes of greeting and concluding transactions which do not involve skin to skin contact may eventually replace the handshake.

Time, of course, will tell but human beings have short memories. We all recall the sudden national rise to super hygiene practices that trailed the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. Hand sanitizers surfaced overnight in offices and many public areas and the ubiquitous handshake was quickly replaced by the elbow touching Ebola handshake.  

These practices did not stand the test of time as they quickly disappeared post-Ebola.  Five years later, we have joined the world to revamp the same hygiene practices and mode of greeting that was predominantly peculiar at the time to the African countries ravaged by the Ebola virus.

One could argue that, had the Ebola and other recent viruses impacted the world as COVID-19 has done, perhaps the hygiene and social distancing practices that have rendered the handshake unwelcome may have stood the test of time.

The Spanish flu in 1918 is the only other virus that could be akin to COVID-19 in terms of its impact on the entire world, albeit with far greater quantitative impact than CoVID-19. One can only wonder if the handshake would still exist today, had medical experts at the time ventured to recommend its abolishment as part of the measures to curb the spread of that pandemic.

What implications does all this have for HR practitioners and business etiquette practices?

 I foresee significant cultural transitions occurring in the near future in the manner in which businesses will be conducted and in our human interactions in general.

Apart from the obvious increase in the reliance on digital technology as a means of business communication, we may begin to see in the Western world, the adoption of Asian cultural greetings  – clasped hands or bowed heads, but without the subservient implications that sometimes underlie their styles of greeting.

Social distancing will become buzz words in our business and social etiquette dictionary as these will become the expected norm for proper human interactions.

This is the time to revamp training curricula in line with the current global realities and in line with what has become the new norm.

Bola Adeniyi-Taiwo