Handshaking: What is it good for? [Part 2 of 3]

Handshaking What is it good for Part 2.jpg

[In this three-part series on handshaking, I will attempt to answer some of the questions that abound about the practice of handshaking in business. In Part 1, we reviewed why we shake hands in the first place, what your handshake says about you, and considered whether we should keep shaking hands or quit this practice altogether. Now, we’ll explore whether handshaking is culture-specific or universal. And come back to read Part 3, in which we’ll examine what other options we have and a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help us all practice proper handshaking protocol (say that three times fast ;) ).]

PART 2: Is handshaking culture-specific or universal?

Yes and yes. In the western world, and in the developed world for sure, handshaking is almost universal. There are many other ancient greeting practices that vary culture by culture, such as bowing, rubbing noses, hugging, kissing (once, twice, thrice, on the cheeks, the hand, the forehead, or the mouth…), and more. There are also variations in the duration and firmness of a proper handshake in different cultures (for example, in Turkey and many Middle Eastern countries a strong handshake is considered too aggressive) or even what you do with the left hand (such as cup the other person’s hand as they shake your right hand, or hold their elbow or shoulder). And of course there are some cultural norms about hierarchical and gender differentiation in shaking hands (treating elders or those with more hierarchical power differently is common in many cultures). There are entire books just on intercultural and cross cultural communication and you should learn as much as possible about the norms of the culture in which you’re doing business.

What about gender differences?

Things also get tricky in terms of cross-gender handshaking and culture. For example, orthodox Jews and many Muslims traditionally forbid cross-gender touching of any kind (except for married and family connections, of course). My colleague Kay Lybrand experienced this at work. She said her employer hosted some visitors from the Middle East, including two women. “It is completely taboo for a man not of direct family to touch them. Instead, we tend to exchange little head nodding bows.” 

Therefore, in business situations, this can create uncomfortable situations in which you’re not sure whether to offer your hand or not. For some people, these situations are extremely off-putting and even offensive.

There’s really no easy solution when you are in a typical western-based, multicultural business context where there is a mix of people from different cultural backgrounds. In our workshops, we discuss things like, should you offer your hand to a woman or wait until she extends her hand first? (my opinion: in western culture women should shake hands and the rules should be applied equally, as I stated above). “I find it insulting when a man does not offer his hand to me right after having shaken other men's hands” said my colleague Carly Borders. If the person appears to be from the Middle East or is dressed in traditional orthodox Jewish attire, should you assume that they won’t shake your hand if of the opposite gender? (my opinion: beware of making assumptions! I've written about the importance of suspending judgment before, check it out).

I highly suggest using the local culture’s norms to guide your actions (study up on them before the business event/situation). But in western culture, I do suggest an egalitarian approach to handshaking with and by women – if we want to be treated equally, we need to play by the same rules.

Business etiquette expert and author Barbara Pachter agrees: “It used to be that men needed to wait for the woman to extend her hand. Not anymore. The new guideline is to give the higher-ranking person a split second to extend his or her hand, and if he or she does not, you extend yours.” Ladies: don’t offer your hand like you want to be kissed on it like a queen! Don’t hold the tips of the man’s fingers with your finger tips like you’re a lady in the 17th or 18th century. “Fingertip or weak handshakes are the worst! Many women do this and it comes off as insincere and immediately affects that first impression” according to businesswoman Marissa Zvaigenhaft. And don’t be afraid to show some muscle – give a firm squeeze to show ‘em that they can take you seriously!

What should I do to navigate all these possible cultural differences in business situations, then?

I still think that you need to use the local norms (in this case, western egalitarian business culture) and vary when you get specific data that those rules do not apply (so you can adapt proactively) or allow the person who is using non-norm practices to initiate the request for adaptation or explain themselves. Most importantly, don’t take it personally if for some reason things backfire IF you followed these suggestions -- it's impossible to get it 100% right every time.

Overall, here’s my advice about dealing with all this multicultural confusion:

When in doubt, offer the classic handshake and adapt to the local norms when in a non-western context. <<TWEETABLE! [

Your turn: Have you ever experienced awkward moments where you realized there was a cultural norm difference surrounding your business greeting? Share it in the comments!

Also, be sure to come back to read Part 3, in which we’ll examine what other options we have and a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help us all practice proper handshaking protocol (say that three times fast ;) ).

P.S. Thanks to friends and colleagues from Facebook and LinkedIn who chimed in on and contributed to my crowdsourcing discussion during the research phase of this blog series: Carly Borders, Larry Straining, Kathy Reiffenstein, Marina Kraus, Marissa Zvaigenhaft, Lori Saitz, Jason Llorenz, Howard Walper, Michael Scott, Matt Moore, Kay Lybrand, ,Jeff Toister, Caner Akıncı, and Cortney Jonas Burnos.

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