Like alphabets, or class division, handshakes are a cultural cornerstone ubiquitous across civilizations and eras—human beings just love a good ol’ flutter of the fin. Ancient Grecian art is abundant with depictions of handshakes, the most popular theory dictating it was a display that you were unarmed. In Babylonia, kings would clasp the hand of a god’s statue, symbolic of a peaceful transfer of power.
In the United States, Quakers are responsible for popularizing the handshake, as they found bowing or tipping their hat to be too emblematic of a hierarchy: If I have a hat to tip, and you do not, power shifts to me by default, which we simply cannot have. A handshake allows for me to shake your hand, and you to shake it right back. Now that everyone is good and shaken, the playing field is nice and even.
Despite handshakes’ roots in varying cultures, each case is united by a common, singular fiber: Shaking hands is a sign of peace and goodwill, which makes declining one a tricky needle to thread. According to Lisa Grotts, The Golden Rules Gal, “Handshakes are important because they are the accepted greeting for everyone in business and social situations. One simple gesture that says not only ‘I’m happy to make your acquaintance,’ but ‘You interest me more than anyone else at this moment.’” Thus, it’s easy to see why feathers may be ruffled by the lack of one, but also, hands are germy. Sometimes the most thoughtful thing you can do for someone is not fuse your petri dish with theirs. Don’t forget to wash your hands after touching these things, too.
The key to avoiding a handshake lies not in declining, but deflecting. In a more casual setting, see if you can get away with a fist bump. A handshake transfers four times the bacteria a fist bump does, according to a West Virginia University study, largely due to the increased contact time and total surface area exposed. However, the fist bump is a mighty, if not volatile, salutation—you must exercise discretion. If you’re meeting your tennis buddy’s new doubles partner, go for it. But absolutely do not fist bump your job interviewer, unless you are trying to free up more time to work on your backhand.
Prefer to avoid contact altogether, but still want to keep it casual? Patti Wood, author of SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, offers an oldie but a goodie: the peace sign. As Wood notes, Belgian BBC broadcaster Victor de Laveleye suggested his countrymen use “V” as a rallying sign during World War II, symbolic of the French word “victoire” (victory) and Dutch word “vrjiheid” (freedom). “If you show the peace symbol it shows others your own beliefs and desires and asks in return, ‘Will you interact with me in harmony?'” says Woods.
Above all, Woods advises starting the greeting earlier while you’re still about seven feet out, giving you the chance to slow it down. In a more formal setting, take initiative and introduce yourself to the other person before they get the chance, and offer a wave instead of your hand. If they’re still going in for it and a handshake appears imminent, there’s still hope.
When they extend their hand, place your hand over your heart and lean forward a bit instead of taking it. Researchers at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that when people place their hand over their heart, they’re not only perceived as more honest but actually…are more honest. By doing this, you’re acknowledging their greeting and validating the interaction, plus the placement of your hand still expresses goodwill and sentiment (and that your hand is already busy). You still convey the sense of cordiality and friendliness that handshakes always do, all while casually indicating you’d rather not touch. After that, if someone still absolutely insists on wringing your paw for all it’s worth, you are no longer the one making the faux pas in this scenario. Next, here are some answers to more of your most pressing questions on modern etiquette.