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Coronavirus etiquette: How to tell people you don’t want to shake hands

Does coronavirus make it okay to leave people hanging when they offer a handshake?
Vice President Mike Pence, left, bumps elbows with Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, right, before a meeting discuss the COVID-19 coronavirus. Officials are avoiding shaking hands as a precaution against the virus.
Vice President Mike Pence, left, bumps elbows with Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, right, before a meeting discuss the COVID-19 coronavirus. Officials are avoiding shaking hands as a precaution against the virus. [ TED S. WARREN | AP ]
Published Mar. 9, 2020

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Handshakes can spread germs, and with the continued spread of the new coronavirus, not to mention flu season, people may be dreading social situations that normally include a hearty handshake. In Florida, 12 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon.

Etiquette expert Elaine Swann says that in the modern era, handshakes remain an important part of business deals and socializing. Tampa Bay career and executive coach Dianne M. Kipp said she even has an exercise she does with clients that involves handshakes as a way to move past disagreements and strengthen bonds at work.

“Shaking hands is still normally the proper way to greet someone in 2020,” Swann said. “However, it’s perfectly fine to hold off on shaking hands right now.”

How do you turn down a handshake without making it awkward? Swann said it’s all about honesty and body language.

“Right now, I’m not shaking hands, but it’s very nice to meet you,” she advises telling people.

She recommends signaling by clasping your own hands together, either in front or behind you, in anticipation of an unwanted hand. She also says that nodding politely can show you’re still being cordial and are actually excited to meet someone.

If you stick out your hand and get left hanging, she says don’t take it personal and don’t linger on it. “Bring up a new topic, and keep the conversation moving forward."

Related: Related: Touching makes us human, coronavirus makes it complicated

A 2014 study showed fist bumps can spread 20 times fewer germs than a handshake, but Swann says you should never offer a fist, or an elbow bump, when the other person offered an open hand.

“If someone offers an open hand ... be honest and tell them you are holding off on any physical contact for now,” she said. “Right now they way we greet one another is very fluid and people are trying to keep up with recent news while filtering out myths.”

As a reminder, Swann said that a proper handshake, when you do shake hands, is as follows: Web-to-web, one to three pumps up and down and always with the right hand. Gender, she said, is irrelevant. The proper handshake does not change.

Whether you’re shaking hands or not, the Centers for Disease Control recommends preventing the spread of disease by washing your hands often for 20 seconds with soap and water, and by avoiding touching your own face.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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