The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, August 17, 2021 1:00 am

To shake hands or not? Yes, if you're comfortable

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Before the pandemic, Meg Underwood would help business students learn how to give a good handshake. Now, heading into a somewhat normal fall semester at Purdue University Fort Wayne, she's not so sure she will.

“To shake or not to shake?” That has been the question many people are asking now that more of us are leaving our Zoom calls and returning to in-person work, meeting up with friends and attending church services after being apart for months.

Underwood, director of professional development and outreach with the Doermer School of Business at Purdue University Fort Wayne, says it's definitely something that will be discussed with students for the spring career fair. “We should be more cautious and aware what other professionals are wanting in the future,” she says.

Most of us are taught that a good, hearty handshake is a must at job interviews and business meetings. “It's part of the spiel,” Underwood says.

After all, not shaking someone's hand can lead to an awkward moment if you're not up to reciprocating the greeting. “It's kind of weird to leave someone hanging,” Underwood says.

But it's also hard to know how to tell someone politely that “I don't want to shake your hand because I don't know where it's been or what it's been doing.” 

I've never been much of a handshaker, and spending more than a year working from home got me used to not having to accept someone's extended hand.

But Underwood is right. It is weird to reject the shake.

I received my first offer to shake hands during the pandemic at church. Things were slowly beginning to open back up after months of being shut down, I was vaccinated, so I decided to attend Sunday service.

I saw the greeter standing by the entrance and I panicked. What am I going to do if he sticks out his hand? And then it happened. “No, thank you,” I said as politely as I could. We just stood looking at each other. (Cue the sound of crickets.) 

I've done the fist and elbow bump, but honestly, unless you're two bros or elementary school children, it just feels a little ridiculous for a 50-something woman to yell out, “Fist bump!”

For a lot of people, the handshake has meaning and represents something important, says Suzanne LaVere, department of history associate professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. That's the case for her husband. “It means a lot to him,” she says.

LaVere says its hard to know why handshakes are so prevalent in the U.S. and other Western cultures. She believes it could have some connection with ancient Greek and Roman history, but even that is hard to know, she says.

The clasping of hands was seemingly an important gesture in Greek and Roman images. There are hand clasping images in art, LaVere says, adding that “there's definitely some evidence of hands joining that looks like a handshake to us.”

Handshaking is also depicted in mythology, LaVere says. In the Iliad and Odyssey, it has been translated that warriors are clasping hands as a way to pledge their trust, she says, which could be a reason why we seal an agreement with a handshake in today's society.

The bottom line: “It's hard to know,” she says, where the idea for the handshake originated.

What we do know is it's been around for centuries.

Underwood doesn't think the handshake is going away, but agrees that these days, it's definitely “a read-the-room situation.” And for some, it doesn't matter what the room says. “If people are big handshakers, they are doing it,” Underwood says.

Her advice is if someone wants to shake your hand and you're comfortable, return it. If not, Underwood says, give a big wave.

Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at or call 461-8304.

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