Cultural Pickup: Letting Go of Handshaking
It might be time to reconsider how we greet each other in the West.
It's flu and cold season again, and everyone is busy rushing to get their shots to try and ward it off. It's always a gamble. As a father of three, I can attest to the accumulative hours my wife and I have waited at the doctor's office for shots (or results of not getting one). But is the flu shot the end all to be all? Of course, not, so it's really important to take preventative measures.
Japan is big on preventative medicine and schools of thought when it comes to "spreading germs". They may not be everyone's cup of lemon tea with honey, but there are some good ideas, all of which are rooted in the concept of doing your best not to spread the germs or illnesses you may have to others. They include wearing masks when ill, a splash of hand sanitizer before heading into a room with a large amount of people, and gargling. But I'm actually not writing this article to promote any of those.
One way that I think people can help keep themselves healthy during the winter season is by not engaging in handshaking. Now this may sound like it might be a bit rude if you are in business (or even just a social situation), but let's weigh the options: continue to do business year-round, or end up ill or rendering your business clients ill.
The idea of refraining from handshaking is not new. A search for online articles goes back to 2010, and there are plenty from 2015 on as well. Dozens of health care sites are all talking about ending handshaking, as do the CDC, Business Insider, and Harvard Medical.
There's nothing wrong with handshaking, it's clearly the greeting of choice when doing business in the West and it's been around for a while, but during the winter season, hands are a flat out liability. (You don't even have to shake hands to catch something icky via your hands. Have you given your keyboard a good cleaning this season? Hint hint.) So wouldn't it be nice to avoid all the drawbacks of the handshake but still be able to show people respect (which is really what you are doing when you greet and shake)?
So what are the alternatives? I mean, we are talking business deals here that could be worth millions. The last thing you want to do is upset your client by not taking a hand extended in good faith. How about bowing like the Japanese do?
While "full on" Japanese bow might be a bit much for a more casual situation or a friendly client, the Japanese don't stop and bow to absolutely everyone all the time either. In my personal experience of working at Japanese companies, once formal introductions have made, especially if you are just passing in the hallway or see each other from across the room (and happen to make eye contract), a smile and polite nod suffices just nicely in most situations.
I call it a "polite nod" and I usually accompany it with a good old fashioned American smile, which I think adds a unique touch to it (at least here in Japan).
But why the bow, or even a nod instead of the handshake? Putting aside the fact that you are not making any physical contact (which is the point), bowing is no strange subject in Western/European cultures; it's been around for ages as both a social form of greeting, paying respect, and offering tribute. Now, some are advocating to use it as a stop-gap measure against illnesses, and that's just smart.
Bowing and polite nodding are gestures of greeting from Japan that can be easily adapted in a business setting anywhere in the world. Of course, getting others to understand why you have changed greeting styles might be a bit difficult in the beginning. It may even seem overwhelming if you have a lot of clients. Simply explain to your coworkers, friends and clients why you would rather not shake their hand, even if it's just during the winter season. Try to stick to your guns year-round though, this isn't, after all, about how you feel emotionally or their confusion; it's about their health, whether they realize it or not, and yours.
In the end, maybe bowing doesn't appeal to you. Well, there is one more idea being touted out there, and while it's not perfect, it's something everyone is familiar with: the fist-bump.
Just a quick recap, three things to do to keep your community healthier when greeting:
1) Bow - This may be for more formal situations or first introductions. But you can still use it, though you may not need to go the full 45-degree route. For those you not familiar with how to bow: Bowing in Japan.
2) Polite nod - Think DiCaprio's Wolf of Wall Street New Year's cheers nod. He slowly bows his head, holds eye contact, and smiles; a clear form of greeting and show of respect. Adapt as needed.