Shake hands or hug it out? Embracing awkward moments in business greetings

Today’s professional conundrum is brought to you by the Proper Greeting and its subsidiary Proper Greeting Confusion. If you have participated in networking events or business meetings over the years, you have inevitably faced the Confusion. For example: A group of men meet, shake hands, maybe slap each other’s backs, and occasionally engage in an ill-advised fist bump (unless you are in a frat, driving a car with a pink mustache, or under the age of 24, just don’t). Add a woman to the mix and Proper Greeting Confusion ensues, particularly when the participants are somewhat familiar with each other.

Some people are huggers, some are not, and often you do not know who is who. I have friends who will hug everyone. I, on the other hand, am a consummate stodgy German and feel very uncomfortable with randomly doling out hugs. So I routinely notice some handshake hesitation — both from men and other women, and even my own awkward self.

I thought that maybe I was an oddball for noticing this, but at a networking group recently it was the topic of discussion. During that lively conversation, everyone in the group had either given it some thought, suffered an awkward full hug or half-committed shoulder bump, or been left out of a handshake in mixed company. Examples included:

  1. The Hybrid Handshake: You go to shake someone’s hand, and he or she immediately leans into this handshake/hug combo. More often than not this ends with that uncomfortable shoulder slide-off thing because someone hadn’t fully committed to the hug idea.
  2. Handshake Hesitation: You wait it out. Will they shake my hand or just ignore me? I sometimes pretend my phone is buzzing or there is an errant bug in my eye so that I don’t have to deal with it. There have been frequent episodes where someone has looked at me and I think they are going to shake my hand, but then don’t, and I’m left in the awkward mid-hand-raise moment. Sometimes I do a sad little wave. I swear I have actually saluted people in that situation. They were not military personnel.
  3. Hug Happy: That person who thinks that if she’s ever met you before you need to be greeted by a big ol’ hug. I am so very not that person. But I try to be accommodating to different styles of greetings. Note: These people tend to strike more at networking events than at meetings.
  4. Traditional: Everyone is greeted by and dismissed with a firm handshake — even best friends. You just can’t go wrong.
  5. Things that should be banned: European air kisses, head patting (this actually happened to me in a meeting), fist bumps (see above), and complicated handshakes that end with some sort of jazz hands.

Following the networking event I mentioned above, I posed the question to a group of women whom I meet with for a monthly dinner, and almost everyone had an awkward hug story or had been in situations where they were passed over for a handshake. One of the women, however, explained that she had solved the issue years ago: “I always shake hands. Always. If I know them well, I simply cover the hand I’m shaking with my other hand.” I asked, “Like a hand hug?” She replied, “Exactly.” It is a brilliant solution that displays an acknowledgment of familiarity without creating any uncomfortableness for anyone.



Since then I have been paying closer attention and doing some research. I found an incredible number of online discussions and blogs from other confused professionals. I found a petition to replace handshakes with hugs (if this is successful, I will become a hermit) and a Time magazine blog about how the Obama family is huggy and affectionate and that this may be trending nationally. I saw a description of a “hip-hop hug” or “hug pound,” which is a one-handed handshake mixed with a one-armed hug in which the huggers pat each other on the back. Not surprisingly, this is usually used by guys.

I decided to take matters into my own hands, so to speak, and started taking the initiative in offering a handshake. It has worked pretty smoothly, though there are still irrepressible huggers, and I guess there always will be. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, and I go with it when need be.

Of all the postulation, speculation, and advice I saw, it seemed that in professional and networking situations you can’t go wrong with a handshake. The only exceptions might be when we are in the throes of a plague or you just coughed into your hands, in which case no contact is best.

If you really want to be more expressive, give people you meet the hand hug. It expresses familiarity and goodwill without requiring awkward contact. The best of both worlds! And the most comfortable option for stodgy Germans.

Carole Schaeffer is the president of Schaeffer Consulting, the executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, and a very reluctant public hugger.

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