The Business Handshake

The Professional Muslim Girl series was inspired by our Editor-in-Chief’s request for an article addressing the business handshake, and how to deal with it if you are discomfited by the idea of shaking hands with your male boss or coworkers. I was excited about the article from the get-go; the problem of getting out of an unsolicited handshake is one that plagues me like no other. As a professional woman, how can I forgo the handshake and still be considered a viable employee in the business world? Business culture runs on firm etiquette and tradition that dictates how people dress, how they behave with each other, etc. Breaking that tradition can lose you your job – but relinquishing your own beliefs can be just as damaging to your psyche.

So, let’s talk about the handshake.

Why Are You Giving Me Your Hand?!

The handshake has been around for centuries, probably since 2 BC. Although the source of the handshake hasn’t been documented, it is widely believed that it was a tradition passed down from medieval knights, who would grip each other’s arms to prove they were not concealing any weapons. Today, the handshake is used across the globe as a greeting, a non-verbal, non-written contract, and a form of congratulations. There are a number of different traditions and forms for handshaking around the world. The French handshake is crisp and strong. The European handshake occurs more frequently than the North American handshake. The South African handshake depends on strength. The Arabic handshake is limp, and lasts a long time. In many Muslim countries, and in Thailand, shaking hands with the opposite sex is considered unmannerly. In countries that do not traditionally shake hands, bows are often acceptable, and the fashion of the bow may depend on your age and status. In India, the polite greeting involves joining the palms in front of the chest, not shaking hands.

The business handshake is a part of Western etiquette, and is often seen as an opportunity to establish positive relationships with business superiors and coworkers. The intimate touching of hands is thought to develop a bond between two individuals, and sets the tone for all future interactions. It is considered a very important part of the business tradition. A handshake is often used to judge employees – strong handshakes show confidence, while weak handshakes imply uncertainty or disinterest.

We have about five million articles online talking about the “perfect handshake” so it’s not hard to assume that anyone could fake it. It’s hardly a strong deductive technique anymore, and rarely says anything about you as a person. Of course, traditions often last forever, and just because it’s worthless and more than likely to get you swine flu, it’s not going to go away.

Here’s the conundrum: how to get out of this tradition without irreparably insulting someone and being judged from here to the moon? There has to be an option that doesn’t involve entering a room with your finger up your nose to the third knuckle.

Confidence is the Key

First thing you have to remember is, be confident. Your choice not to shake hands with your male superiors or coworkers is a valid choice and you have every right to make it. Your body belongs to you, and it is up to you to dictate what is done with it. Remind yourself as often as you can that no one has the right to demand that you shake their hand, and if they do demand so, they are in the wrong. Women have been conditioned by society to be polite, to give in, to acquiesce even when they are uncomfortable with a situation. The guy offering you a drink who won’t take no for an answer is “just being nice” – you’re the impolite one, right? Wrong. That guy is attempting to control you by using social etiquette against you. There is nothing wrong with saying no, and meaning no. Remember, you control your body, you make the rules where your body is concerned, and if you don’t want to shake hands, you don’t have to. Confidence in this notion can make all the difference. For one thing, it replaces what the handshaker might be missing out on – a display of your strength and self-assuredness. For another, doing anything with confidence often forces people to respect you. If you walk into a building like you know what you’re doing, people will think you know what you’re doing. If you decline to shake hands with poise and self-assurance, people will be more likely to follow your lead.

Just Say No

The next step is to figure out a way to say no. There are many options, and you can probably think of you that you are most comfortable with. People sometimes take the less aggressive route of setting a business card into the hand that is reaching out for a shake. Again, this shows confidence and is a nice distraction from the shake itself. Once you hand over the card, move towards wherever you believe you will be seated so that you are out of the radius of another attempted shake.

Another option is to be straightforward. This can be more nerve-wracking, but if you find yourself getting anxious, remind yourself that you have a right to your body. Repeat it until it’s all you can hear. You have nothing to be ashamed of at all. When the hand extends, smile and nod your head, and say, “I apologize, I don’t shake.” Using the word “don’t” makes your point clear – it’s not that you “can’t” (which implies that in other situations you might) and it’s not that you “don’t want to” (which suggests you have something against the shaker), it’s that you “don’t” – you have chosen not to shake. End of story. If the shaker asks for an explanation, offer them the one you are most comfortable with: “It is against my beliefs,” or “It is a personal choice,” or “I am a Muslim.” Remember though, you are not obligated to offer an explanation, and you most definitely don’t have to tell the truth if you don’t want to. If being vague keeps you confident and comfortable, say that it is a decision you have made in your life, and leave it at that. Again, smile. Speak with assuredness.

But What If … ?

If you simply cannot find it in yourself to not shake that hand, don’t worry. You have not failed as a Muslim, or as a woman. Going against societal rules often takes a lot of courage and it can take time to build up to the point where you are comfortable enough to say no. Whether you do end up making the business handshake, remember this: your worth as an employee, a Muslim, a woman or a person does not depend on whether or not you shake someone’s hand. No one has the right to shame you for your choice, either way. Whatever you choose to do, do it with faith in yourself: you are in control.

Keep an eye out for the next article in this series: Dress for Success: A Muslimah’s Guide to Business Fashion.