Q: I was surprised to read your answer that women and men should always shake hands upon meeting. “Good manners” used to say that no man ever offered his hand to a woman unless the woman extended her hand first. I no longer offer my hand at all because of arthritis pain. The last time I returned a proffered hand from a man resulted in my howl of pain when he squeezed too tight! What can I do?
A: You’re right — there was a time when a man didn’t offer his hand to a woman unless she reached out first. But like the custom of chaperones for young women, this tradition has changed. Today, everybody shakes hands, and it’s perfectly appropriate for a man to offer his hand to a woman first. Normally, refusing to shake hands is a serious mistake. Why? Because our society is conditioned to expect that an extended hand will be reciprocated. When it isn’t, the focus turns from “Hi, how are you?” and the ensuing conversation to “What’s wrong? Did I say something to make him/her mad at me?” With a condition such as yours, I suggest acknowledging the situation so you don’t leave the other person wondering what’s going on: “It’s so nice to meet you. Please excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but I have painful arthritis.”