The Death of Handshaking: What’s a PR Person to Do?

Everybody in PR recalls who taught them to properly shake hands. In my case, it was John T. Myers, a congressional candidate from southern Indiana who in 1966 offered this simple advice: “Get a firm grip, kid, smile and look them in the eye for a good five seconds.” That technique helped him get elected to 15 terms in the U.S. Congress.

A tradition dating back to the 5th century B.C. in Greece, handshaking then was a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon. Today, that hand might indeed be carrying an unintended weapon of disease. So within a matter of a few weeks, a centuries old tradition is becoming a forbidden greeting.

So what’s a PR pro to do?

I went to an event last week where half the people still shook hands while others kept their hands behind their backs or in their pockets. I took the lead from whichever person I was meeting, but certainly was relieved when a friend slipped me her miniature bottle of Purell.

Fortunately, we’re a profession adept at adjusting to demands of the times. In fact, many of us awkwardly attempted to move towards fist bumps—until we learned that this is only 70% cleaner than handshaking. Although entertaining, I also resisted Jim and Pam’s “high five” option from The Office.

Until the germs and current crisis gets under control, I’ve mostly adopted my favorite new term of 2020 — social distancing. If necessary, I plan to rely on three greeting approaches: Just Say Hello, Smile and Eye Contact and family and good friends will get Jimmy Kimmel’s #elbump.

Body language expert Patti Wood likes the elbump, too, but she adds a few other options:

  • “The Graceful Dodge” If they offer you a handshake, stop in place and smile
  • “Salute and Wave Combo”
  • “Slight Bow”
  • “The Peace Sign”.
  • “The Dap or Fist Bump”

Another habit that will be hard to break—hugging. PR people have become good huggers (just the right amount of time (two back taps and out). At this time, let’s drop it entirely—but perhaps good friends get an arms-extended-pretend embrace from afar. But under all circumstances, air kisses remain verboten.   -Ron Culp

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