Daily Dilemmas: How to Handle ‘the Handshake’

Sheri Denkensohn-TrottQ. I am a C4 quadriplegic and cannot move my right wrist or fingers. During waking hours, I wear a splint on my right hand to hold that wrist and lower arm in place, and attached to the splint is a cuff that wraps around my hand to enable me to hold things. My problem occurs when I want to shake hands. In professional and personal encounters, when I put out my right hand, the other person often doesn’t touch it and just says hello. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious. Should I say something or just let it go at “hello” and a head nod?

A. Conquering the handshake situation can be awkward and anxiety-provoking for everyone involved. Shaking hands when you meet someone is an etiquette norm in the United States as well as in many other countries. Much has been written about the nature and nuance of “the shake” and how important it is to make a good first impression. A firm shake commonly indicates confidence, while a weak one means you are tentative. The list goes on, with myriad interpretations of the supposed meaning of each handshake. No wonder getting the gesture right can be so stress-inducing.

When you put out your hand to someone you’ve just met, the other person will likely do one of three things:

1. Ignore your hand and just say hello.
2. Put out their hand and barely touch yours.
3. Shake your hand.

The third scenario is the most unlikely. Instead, you probably will experience an uncomfortable moment as hands go down and the individual you’ve just met moves on to the next person for a “normal” handshake. And once you miss that opportunity to shake hands, it is gone.

However, you can alter the dynamic of this encounter and turn it, discreetly, into a teachable moment. Consider that there’s a good chance the person you’re meeting also is uncomfortable. They may think that shaking your hand will hurt you or be unsure of how to grab your hand. Or perhaps they haven’t had the opportunity to shake the hand of a quadriplegic until now.

When a person approaches you to for a handshake, you can preempt any awkwardness by holding out your arm and saying, “Don’t worry, you can shake my hand. It won’t hurt.” By doing so, you are giving that person permission to move forward. The first handshake may not be great, but at least physical contact will occur. And each time it will get easier, especially when you greet the same person subsequently and they become familiar with your preferences.

In some cases, despite efforts, a handshake may not occur. Trying once again to emphasize that a handshake will not hurt is an option. However, it is up to you to decide how many times you want to try before giving up on the ideal handshake. Although it’s not easy, try to take it in stride and realize that the other person’s discomfort and lack of understanding are likely responsible for the awkwardness and there’s little you can do to prevent it. If the lack of a handshake is very important because it involves a close friend or coworker, you may want to pull that person aside and talk about the situation. There may be underlying fears that are worthy of discussion. It is worth a try!

Regardless, there is no reason you should be treated differently because you have difficulty moving your fingers and hand. And the splint and cuff should not be barriers. Although that first handshake may not be the best, know that the awkwardness will likely dissipate over time, and you eventually may find relief when it comes to the tradition of shaking hands.

That said, some people whose arms or hands have been affected by injury might not feel comfortable shaking hands, or they might not be bothered by a hello-and-nod greeting. And some might not find themselves in situations where handshaking is called for. In these cases, people should continue with whichever customs they are comfortable, instead of focusing on the handshake.

** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/02/how-to-handle-the-handshake/

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