Lately, almost whenever I meet salespeople and also socially, people extend their hand to shake. As a woman I do not want to shake strangers’ hands.
Recently a car salesman approached my husband and then me. I kept my hands behind my back and smiled at the salesman. He asked, “Do you not want to shake my hand?” I said I was in covenant with my husband and do not shake hands.
However, I do NOT want to hurt people’s feelings. Do you have a polite, kind way of avoiding the handshake without going into detail? I would appreciate a ‘tool’ for this new lunging intrusion.
We are fascinated by your question. When I (RDL) was growing up under the flag of the British Empire, there were definite protocols accepted by the entire society. It was a woman’s prerogative to choose whether to extend her hand to a man or not. For a gentleman to put his hand out first, reflected gaucheness and bad manners.
To this day, men about to be introduced to Queen Elizabeth II of England are warned not to extend their hands until and unless the Queen does so first.
Like you, I see that this is clearly not the case today, at least in America. And from a Jewish perspective, it is awkward for me when a woman puts out her hand to me to be shaken just as it is awkward for my wife when a man does the same. We believe it best to refrain from all physical contact with the opposite sex (outside the immediate family), including shaking hands.
If we have an ongoing relationship with that person, we describe our position and how we reserve physical contact for immediate family members. Sometimes we relate how as our children reached adolescence, having absolute standards about members of the opposite sex not touching each other in any way helped them to have healthier lives. That is something most people can understand.
We have always been treated respectfully once we clarify our position. We can’t tell from your writing if the salesman you encountered was being confrontational or if he was giving you an opening to affirm your choice.
However handshaking, and even a social hug, are so prevalent in society today that even when we have explained our position, acquaintances we only see sporadically often forget. In addition, we frequently meet large groups of people who have the warmest intentions when they extend their hands, so we often find ourselves in the same situation as you.
Like you, we are torn between two conflicting standards, both of which are important to us. The strong desire not to embarrass anyone exists side by side with discomfort and a religious difficulty with such physical contact. We wish we had a magic tool but we don’t. Perhaps if enough people speak about this issue, awareness will spread so that more people will pick up on cues such as someone giving a friendly smile while keeping hands firmly at his or her side.
Here’s waving at you,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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