I (Don’t) Wanna Shake Your Hand?

October 30th, 2019 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 36 comments

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.

Thank You,

Catherine

Dear Catherine,

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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36 comments

Christine Jones says:

I have rheumatoid arthritis in my hands and feet, and I also refrain from shaking hands. As a result, I have to explain, but sometimes I offer the “fist bump”. It’s not as intimate and doesn’t hurt. It would be my wish that people were more thoughtful and would accept it without explanation if I (or anyone else) did not offer a hand.

Jan R says:

I’m starting to really like the Asian idea of bowing to each other as a greeting. It is respectful but no touching required. Just a thought.

Lacey says:

@Jan R : Oh, my , I’m glad you mention this! As I began to read the comments, it immediately crossed my mind how often Asian culture is so polite in this way too. I feel that no explanation is needed if one chooses to respond with a polite smile, and a nod of the head, especially to preserve being a lady at first impression.

FYT says:

I did not know this. It makes so much sense, especially from the children’s learning aspect. But having grown up as a Texan and a Christian, I am very comfortable with shaking hands and hugging because it has always been part of my life. It would not occur to me that others did not shake hands so I am so glad to be educated. Thank you. It also brings to mind the media overwhelming reaction to the candidate running for office who would not allow a newspaper woman to ride in the vehicle with him alone. It was as if that attitude was so old fashioned that they could not allow him his view. Even when some pointed out Vice President Pence has the same philosophy. That was sort of brushed to the side like “well that is Mike Pence” with a shrug. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if all respected other’s boundaries?

David says:

I was raised (in the south) it was a women’s prerogative to extend her hand, or even address the man. The theory being that the women should be in control as to any conversation that she may want to occur. The ultimate concern was ensuring the comfort level of the lady.

Chad says:

From a man’s perspective, at least mine, when I’ve been approached by someone who doesn’t shake my hand, it is a little weird at first. However, when that person offers an explanation that it isn’t personal, the awkwardness vanishes. If the lady who wrote this can find a way to offer a quick explanation for her position, it would alleviate the awkwardness for the other person. The most common explanation I usually get is something along the lines of “Forgive me, but I don’t shake hands. It’s a germ thing.” For her, it could be something like “Forgive me, I don’t shake men’s hands for religious reasons.” The key is to depersonalize it so that the other person doesn’t feel like it is directed at them personally. For some people, it won’t matter, but this should help with most.

Terry Sterling says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan,
It seems we Americans started doing this long ago as a sign of peace letting the other person know we are not a threat. It is expected between most men with men and even a sign of manhood. I do not go around shaking people’s hands, yet when I become a close friend with someone (women that is) we often hug as a sign of caring. Most of the time people are just trying to be friendly. This is all part of the lines getting crossed on how men and women should behave. A man, in my opinion should never put his hand out to be shaken by a woman, as was said earlier. Men, especially, don’t know what to do anymore. If they shake the man’s hand and not the women’s they could get in trouble, if they shake the man’s hand and the women’s it could be seen wrong too. I think that if a person was raised where shaking hands with strangers is a no no, you may have to state your position right at the onset. Better yet, you being a woman, maybe your husband could handle it. No pun intended! This was a wonderful question and I will from now on pause/ think about how others might feel about hand shaking and hugging.
Sincerely,
Terry Sterling

Need to judge situations carefully. My finding that some have used the grasp of a hand to become means of force. Then self-defense needed for escape, to prevent further harm. A class for youth and women presented in times around the early 70’s was due to such necessity. Law enforcement people gave such and advised caution. Still no less true.

Mcintosh says:

Traditionally a man only shakes a woman’s hand if she first extends hers because woman often wear more jewelry, especially rings, which when squeezed can cause discomfort. Secondarily, some men don’t know there own strength and often cause unintentional discomfort. I recommend the knuckle bump. A modern greeting with minimal contact.
Thank you,
Mcintosh

Leo says:

As an American, boy and man, I learned extending my hand to a woman was impolite. Now, I am still surprised when a woman extends her hand, and disappointed with fist bumps and elbow bumps (unless excused by “I have a cold” or some such). Not to mention that too many seem not to know how to shake hands.

Thomas J. Mitchell says:

Thank you Rabbi for this confirmation of proper behavior. Personally, I shake hands with a lady only if she extends her hand first. That is limited to a quick but polite shake. I give a hug only to my daughters, daughters-in-law (some), granddaughters, and, happy to add, great granddaughters. Thank you again.

Em says:

Intrusion? Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but greeting someone with a handshake in the United States is not meant to be an intrusion. It is the American way of greeting someone, and if someone does not wish to extend their hand as a greeting, it’s okay. A ‘smile’ or ‘hello’ will suffice. Some of us even nod. Many countries have different ways of greeting each other, and I doubt their greetings are meant to be an intrusion. Catherine answered her own question in how to avoid the handshake by simply stating that she doesn’t shake hands. I’m sure most Americans would be understanding, and accepting of her convictions. I’m sure the salesman was too. Call it a tool if you want, but all she has to do is be ‘polite’ about it. Oh, and keeping her hands behind her back was also a tool.

The PolitiBears says:

The PolitiBears say that is just plain silly. We have observed Humans for many decades and have seen how things change and have changed over the years. Now because of women wanting to be leaders and the various other movements, a handshake is a symbol of equality and being on the same footing as any other Human. You Humans confuse we Bears because you want it all different ways and are never satisfied. A handshake between friends and business associates has NOTHING whatsoever to with the relationship you have with your mate/partner. A Human male does have the responsibility to not crush a Human female’s hand and to show proper restraint. We think you come off as cold and standoffish with your position and it has nothing to do with your religious position. By being standoffish like this you add to the problem of communication between Human genders rather than breaking down barriers and making for good relationships.

Follow we Bears on Twitter. @politibears

Joyce R says:

What a beautiful concept. I don’t believe I ever consciously thought this out but I, too, grew up in a small town. In my youth there, handshakes between the sexes were not forbidden, but it was generally left to the ladies to decide whether to shake hands or not. Ladies most often simply tipped their heads slightly on greeting men.

Since leaving home as a young woman to go to college and then to work, I grew uncomfortably accustomed to a total disregard for the customs I grew up with. Even now as an older woman, I find it jarring especially when younger men and even younger women come toward me with their hands extended for the ubiquitous handshake. It is not a matter of religion for me, but of both modesty and respect. With health care providers it is also a question of “did you wash your hands before greeting me?” What can I say, I am also something of a germaphobe. In any case, Miss Susan, I like your custom of keeping your hands behind your back.

Adrian says:

Handshaking is so common that I never thought about it much until some people stopped doing it at church. I thought it was a little silly since those same people would probably have no issue shaking the hand of a salesman or manager. Don’t people shake the hand of the human resource lady after an interview? If we trim away handshakes, why not keep going and extend it to waves or bowing?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Adrian,
We don’t extend it to waves and bowing as you ask, because to a normal and healthy human being, there is nothing quite like skin-to-skin contact between a man and a women. This is just how our Great Designer intended it thereby assuring the continuation of humanity and the intoxicating closeness possible between a husband and wife. But like any powerful ammunition, it should not be mishandled. Doing so can be dangerous.
Cordially
RDL

Cartha Alene Mahoney says:

Dear Rabbi, I have been following your thoughts since even before retiring here to Florida. A guru from India – now passed – taught that body touching was for families. It is hard sometimes to not want to do a hand shake or a hug and explanations are immediate explanations…well, It just isn’t the best social context to explain at the moment. Thank you for broaching this subject which exists within a multi-cultural time.

All the best to you and Susan!

Neweverymoment, Deb:
Politician Bob Dole, who suffered from the aftermath of a war wound, carried a ballpoint pen in that hand so people wouldn’t attempt to shake it.
Pro and con, you’re never going to suit everybody. Somehow, I had never heard of the religious prohibition. Physical contact such as hugs is shown to be psychologically beneficial, as long as one is sensitive to others, as other responses have mentioned. Good sales training includes being sensitive to the other person’s responses. If and when one does shake hands, one uses a firm but not bonecrushing grip, and “nice” men tend to hug off center, supplying the warm contact with fewer sexual overtones. Worth mentioning: a culture such as the Victorian tended to make men come unglued at the sight of a feminine ankle at the bottom of a long skirt! It may be worth being a little less uptight about the whole issue.

James says:

Fascinating topic! I had no idea that a handshake could have so many facets. Before I graduated (early 1980’s from a Jesuit) college, the career placement director personally instructed each student participating in on campus recruiting how to properly shake hands as part of our preparation for successful job interview. Both men and women alike. And she was a woman. I never had given it much thought, other than it is expected in the business world, and that a firm (not crushing) handshake is a polite expression of respect and openness. Hopefully we can appreciate and be accommodating to all of these different notions attached to an extended hand.

Lisa says:

We do live in a world where some people are quite predatory and will take advantage of any and every situation including shaking hands and hugging. My well- being, especially as a single female, comes before all else so I do not shake hands and I do not hug. Of course, I remain courteous and polite, yet I’m also aware of how the world really is at times.

Susan Lapin says:

My husband and I love this fascinating and diverse conversation on this topic. We are very tied up today and haven’t had a chance to respond, but if you’re interested, we’d love those of you who are on social media to take the opportunity to talk to each other about this, at our Facebook group: Friends of Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2035648160027523/

Carolyn says:

I have never heard of this but will have to give it thought and worry about shaking hands now. I was raised in the 70s and was taught that men and women are equal and as such, women and men shake hands. My one pet peeve is when men limply shakes my fingers. I don’t need to be crushed but a limp handshake is awful and a bit insulting. A different thought on this is for those who are lonely and may not get daily hugs or any physical contact from family or loved ones and may treasure a quick bit of human contact from a handshake or a quick hug. I guess there is no easy answer. Ah yes, today’s American society where no matter what you do, it is considered wrong to someone.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Carolyn,
So you were a child of the 70s! They taught a great many falsehoods back then, just as they do now. For instance, back then they were still teaching the so called whole language system of reading for children even though we now know it was a real crock. Similarly, I assume you have rejected that old notion you were indoctrinated into believing that men and women are equal (whatever that even means) along with other equally false and misleading ideas that were regularly promulgated in that dark decade!
Good to hear from you; thanks for writing
Cordially
RDL

Carolyn says:

I was raised in an atheist family and have since become a Christian. I have learned to change my thinking on a lot of what I was taught as a child. Hence my interest in your wisdom and teachings. I value and thank you for both!

Carmine Pescatore says:

I offer my hand as a symbol of friendship and that I consider the other person my equal.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Not sure I agree, Carmine–
I don’t extend my hand to women but when I shake hands with a man, I don’t presume equality of any kind. It might be a far older and wiser man greeting me with a handshake, it might be an athlete capable of rare feats or it might be a vagrant on the street who extended his hand. In all cases, it is a western-style greeting but to me it carries with it no tacit implication of equality — whatever equality even means. Thanks for writing
Cordially
RDL

Lisa Beausay says:

It doesn’t matter where in the USA you were born, it is ALWAYS a social faux pas for a gentleman to extend his hand to a lady first. When I was married and this happened I would simply say that I maintained a strict “hand’s off” policy with men other than my husband but was very happy to meet them just the same. I’m no longer married but still feel uncomfortable when a man attempts to shake my hand as I am not another man and have no desire to be treated like one. I also was raised to go out of my way in order to make others feel comfortable so now I simply raise my hand higher than his, flat and palm down dropping my wrist in a sort of “you may kiss my hand” fashion. This enables him to only touch my fingers and reminds him that I am a lady. I’m grateful that most men were taught correctly that they should wait until a woman extends her hand first before they attempt to shake hands.
Thank you for bringing this subject up. So few people talk about it but everybody has thought about it at some point in their lives.

Susan Lapin says:

Lisa, I’m fascinated to hear you say this, as I have been finding all the other comments interesting as well. For my husband and me, it is equally awkward for him when a lady puts her hand out to him, so this is a two-way street. I think the one-sidedness of which you speak may be a casualty of women in business. I can hear that some women would be insulted to be treated any differently than their male counterparts. This conversation has been an eye-opener for me and I think for others as well.

Tina says:

This is interesting indeed. I grew up in a southern African culture where there was minimal contact between men and women (boys and girls), and attended a girls only high school.
However when I moved to the USA, firm handshaking with direct eye contact with everyone, male or female, was insisted on as being the American way. Imagine my discomfort! In addition, during dental school & residency in the USA, we were taught that to establish a rapport, gain trust & have a positive bedside manner we HAVE to shake hands no matter what. Then proceed to wash our hands before starting the patient exam. Only if the patient appeared contagious did we skip handshaking.
I will definitely revert to my southern African upbringing with regards to handshaking & hugs with my 3 kids. I do know they may suffer for it living in the west where physical contact across genders has no clear boundaries, if any at all. Sigh.

I loved and believe every word of Rabbi’s answer. I only wish that our society did too. My solution? I’m going to be as brave as Catherine: keep my hands behind my back, bow my head gracefully and say: “Thank you for extending your hand to me but I don’t shake hands for personal reasons.” How’s that? We used to have a ritual in the Catholic Church where we “passed the peace” by shaking hands. Then there was some sort of flu epidemic and the Bishops told us to just wave and bow are heads instead. I think that was in the 90’s. Almost all worshipers have held to that new tradition ever since— great!

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Dianne–
Thanks for writing; it is so indicative to hear that worshippers have clung to that old innovation that was meant to be temporary. By the way, I just want you to know that when you wrote “I loved and believe every word of Rabbi’s answer” you were obviously unaware that these answers are the result of very intense collaboration between Susan and me. I could never write these answers without Susan and needless to say, without the Help of Him who provides wisdom to His faithful. So, what you really meant to write was “I loved and believe every word of Susan’s and Rabbi’s answer.” I hope you don’t mind me pointing that out.
Cordially
RDL

Yes, thank you, I realized that after I wrote it.

Mark says:

I, like quite a few of the other commenters, never knew that shaking hands was so complicated for some and that there were so many ideas and rules about it. I grew up in a middle class family in the Midwest and went to good schools, but no one ever told me about it being impolite to offer my hand to a woman. Perhaps this varies in different parts of the country (despite what another commenter wrote above.) I always have thought—at least until now—that shaking hands was the normal, socially accepted form of greeting in the United States, especially when you are first introduced to someone. Men, women, even children. Now I have to rethink it all! Of course I have occasionally met people who through word or action make it clear they don’t shake hands, which is fine, no big deal. But I never thought I was being insensitive for offering my hand to shake. I have noticed that young people don’t shake hands as much. I have the impression they think it is outdated or too formal, so they just skip it. Or they go for the fist bump, which, sorry, seems slightly absurd and ridiculous to me and which I don’t even want to adopt. But, different strokes.

I spent two years in various Western European countries in the early 90s. While shaking hands is certainly a standard greeting in the United States, it is not required and it is not unheard of for it to be ignored or dispensed with. Wow, is it different in Europe! (I refer only to continental Europe, not Britain.) EVERYONE shakes hands, all the time! And not just when you are first introduced, but every time you see them. Even old friends usually shake hands whenever they meet. It surprised me how often I was expected to shake someone’s hand, but before long I not only adapted to it, but grew to appreciate it. That brief moment of literal human contact was reassuring and a type of kindness. Just my opinion.

Sandy says:

I grew up in a family that had virtually no hugging/kissing etc., that I can remember, (except later when I was an adult, and that would include just my mother), I did begin to accept and follow the lead of other people who extended a hand or hug which to me seemed OK, and it would have been awkward to refuse. I have had a few incidents where there were men who wanted to give me a “Bear Hug” with their wives right there which presented a whole new difficulty. How does one hug some and not others? This would include friends/family. Solutions don’t come easy.

Daniel Ferrera says:

I was raised in Miami where it is customary to hug , kiss I mean a hand shake, give me a break.
Then I lived in Argentina, a kiss is the standard for male and female. It is offensive if you do not
That being said, I moved to California and I was shocked that even addressing a person of the opposite sex is an offence.
My point is this , in Spanish we have a saying ” Al paid que fueres has lo que vieres ”
Which translates to ” When in Rome….”

Find out what’s appropriate I say. I Think that by you stating your position the situation is then cleared and there will be no awkwardness. Respect is universal and understanding.

Susan Lapin says:

Daniel, I think the response shows that we may know the norms for where we live, but we shouldn’t assume that they are the norms elsewhere. In addition, individuals have their own needs and comfort zones and we should be tuned in to other people and willing to state what is comfortable for us.

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