“I’d shake your hand but…”

Entry originally appeared in Peter Post’s E Word blog for The Boston Globe.

A friend of mine had an accident recently while riding her bike. End result was broken bones, which necessitated casts on both of her hands. Fortunately, her thumb and forefinger on her right hand and her thumb forefinger and middle finger on her left hand are free so she can grip things, sort of.

I explain all this because she described how she has had some interesting and unique experiences greeting people as a result of her hands being in the casts. In spite of her situation, she finds that people still try to shake hands with her. They extend their hand to greet her, and she awkwardly raises her hand to show the cast. Instead of backing off people have reached out and taken hold of her forefinger or awkwardly but gently grasped her whole hand, cast and all.

Other people have chosen not to shake at all, out of concern for her condition: “I’d shake your hand, but…” Funny enough, it is those people’s choice that has been most difficult for her. When the handshake doesn’t happen, even awkwardly, the ensuing interaction with the person, be it personal or business in nature, gets off on the wrong foot. She’s found that the physical connection—the touching of skin to skin and the grasping of hand with hand— we have with another as we shake hands is very important in establishing a connection with that person. When that connection happens the start of the interaction seems complete. When that connection doesn’t happen, she feels the resulting meeting or get-together is missing something, that it leaves a hole. So even with her casts, she prefers to attempt a handshake than not to have that connection at all.

I often get asked about whether it is necessary to shake hands when greeting people. Yes, it’s important not to leave someone standing there with his hand outstretched in empty space. But perhaps in the final analysis, it is my friend’s realization of how important that physical connection is in greeting someone that is the real reason the handshake is still an integral and important part of any greeting today.