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24 March 2020
Gilana Mikhailova

Responding to handshakes in coronavirus times

It is hardly a secret that crises have a direct impact on humanity’s transformational growth. They instigate work, thought, and unconventional solutions that either become a tradition or die out. Communications is yet another area where the 21st century keeps surprising us. Gilana Mikhailova, Director of the RANEPA International Protocol Centre explains how coronavirus outbreak can have a positive impact on business relations and their façade.

Will we stop shaking hands? Will summits also become remote? I believe we hear these questions so frequently that it is becoming insane. Though, reason is truly rare amidst panic... However, the fact remains: change is upon us, which will affect business etiquette among other things.

No doubt, it’s rather amuzing when Germany’s Health Minister does not shake hands with Frau Merkel. But what are we, the commoners, are supposed to do when we meet a colleague? Or worse, your boss offers his or her hand?

Something to remember is that one key thing about etiquette is common sense. Therefore, you have a number of options up your sleeve. First of all, you can send out a note in advance informing people that you are not shaking hands at the moment (later share with people how long you have last). Secondly, you can refrain from reciprocating and explain that you don’t want to put anybody’s health at risk.

Another solution is to have a sanitizer or antiseptic wipes with you at all times, so that you can use them on your hands prior to and after a handshake. There is not all that many meetings at this point, so I doubt you will need a whole briefcase full of wipes. At the same time, this practice can potentially lead to eczema or dry skin, but at least you’ll be confident you did all you could.

Then, if you think you will not be able to avoid handshaking, go for it. But you need to remember about hygiene and that you cannot touch your face — it’s a taboo. Lastly, you should not reduce all situations to the same level: there more healthy people than those infected with coronavirus. There are people you can discuss your handshake-related concerns with, and there are others who you should shake hands with. Remember, it is the person with a higher rank who offers his or her hand. It is up to the subordinate to decide whether to respond or ignore and evaluate how it might affect their relations and career.

If your organization is still offline and you would like to minimize physical contact, put up a note with rules on the office door. Make sure you post the same notes in areas where people tend to congregate.

I should say that handshake is not the only form of greeting being reviewed by protocol experts all over the world. Not so long ago, hand-kissing meant to pinpoint the lady’s special role, while now it is considered dated and uncalled for. Especially that most men obviously do not know the hand-kissing rules.

Compliments in business environment are also fading away. The fear of being associated with harassment is on the mind of both genders. Everybody’s tolerance resulted in the situation when calling a woman a woman becomes ambiguous. Some men take offence when being addressed ‘Mr.’ in correspondence. Salutations turned into a havoc — many people are at a loss about a proper way to address their counterpart: in Russian ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ sounds like too much, while ‘comrade’ sounds utterly ridiculous. Not to mention strangers. Per say, once I asked a person with ponytails for directions (let me remind you that ponytails is something little girls used to wear before) and addressed them as ‘Ms.’ It turned out that person had a beard and never dignified me with an answer.

Naturally, languages adjust to our aspirations. The jury is still out whether it’s good or not. In Russian, feminitives for such words as chairman, director, leader, partner, and ambassador sound derogatory and weird. The head of the parliament in one of the European countries insisted on a strange sounding feminitive for chairperson and even refused to start her speech because of that. This situation was fairly confusing on a number of levels: for the protocol department that prepared the meeting script, MPs that did not expect such an outcry from their leader, and her audience. The need for business cards or lack thereof is also being scrutinized.

The digital etiquette is now developing, too. We see quite a number of debates on whether it is appropriate to send voice messages or use emoji in business correspondence (here I must confess I have no idea what some of them mean and what would be a good way to use them). What about public grief on social networks? Is it ok to call? Should one send few short messages or a long one that would start with a greeting? The online community is busy arguing about the best way to start a message or say thank you.

Here comes 2020 with something no one could expect: we should refrain from handshaking due to the spread of coronavirus. Should we go for namaste or foot shake instead? Or maybe bows or winks? Media discusses whether this would kill handshaking or it’s a temporary thing.

Let’s get real here: handshakes have been around for centuries not because they were invented by someone. They have gone through a certain evolution and bear cultural codes so easily perceived by other people: I am unarmed and ready to cooperate. Other countries have other options. Would we say goodbye to handshakes forever after a couple of months of abstaining? I don’t think so. It’s like enjoying curry and sashimi and then going vegan. Our body will resist the change. It will take us quite a bit of time to start opening doors with our elbows or wear gloves in the subway rain or shine. I doubt that after a couple of moths everybody will remember to wash their hands after public places. Though this is something worth becoming a habit.

Evolution helped humans survive and turn the world into a comfortable place. Our socially oriented actions give us a chance to avoid extinction. Our brains can adopt a constructive path in search of an optimal take on the situation rather than take a destructive path of fear. My support goes to those with a conscious attitude to their health and the health of people around them. I don’t think I’m alone here.

I suggest we revisit this topic in a couple of months from now. The panic will be over. We’ll be back to normal casting curious looks at our stashes of toilet paper and buckwheat. (By the way, to this day I fail to understand how toilet paper can save you from coronavirus and why anyone would this much).

Material prepared by:
Gilana Mikhailova
Director of the RANEPA International Protocol Centre

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