From handshakes to fist bumps: Navigating the future of professional greetings amid COVID-19

'Let your conscience be your guide'
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Posted at 8:53 AM, Jun 07, 2021

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — There is a right way and a wrong way to shake hands, according to Sherry Thomas, the president of Palm Beach Etiquette.

"We as Americans only have one or two standard styles of greeting," she said.

Thomas is now consulting with businesses about the so-called greeting gray area that exists amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What I am seeing in companies is there is no standard," she said. "I do have people call me a lot and ask my opinion on how I feel about it, and I do think it is individual."

Thomas recommends a "virtual handshake."

"When they are meeting virtually, to break the ice a little bit," Thomas said. "Say, 'I am sending you a virtual handshake to break the ice.'"

She said readiness for an in-person handshake or hug upon a return to the office is all over the place.

"Everybody understands the psychological trauma that we've endured during this time, and we all have," she said. "This has been a big ordeal in our lives, so let your conscience be your guide."

Eric Cornell, the managing director of the Cornell Group at Ameriprise Financial, said these days "it's mostly fist bumps."

"The hugs are definitely out at this point," he said. "Elbow bumps? Yeah, we do get those."

He said in the business world, the handshake has been a staple for a very long time. In the past, if someone didn't shake hands, chances are he wouldn't do business with them.

"Probably not. That would reflect pretty poorly on us, because it's a sign of trust, respect," he said. "The reality is it is a forced change."

It's a forced change that has some area business owners navigating new a normal as well.

Ellen Bauer, the owner of the Wellness Jar Medical Spa, said her employees greet clients at the door to get a read on their comfort level.

"We open the door," she said. "We offer them hand sanitizer. We get a sense right when they are coming in. You can take that cue and use that for your interaction."

It's a system that was put in place after an unnerving interaction at the height of the pandemic.

"They (an employee) didn't know what to do other than just shake the hand with deer eyes and say, 'I don't know what just happened,' and that's why we started to have the conversation with our staff to say, 'OK, let's talk about it,'" she said.

Thomas says people who aren't yet ready for handshakes or hugs shouldn't feel bad about stopping someone who is "coming in hot."

"By simply saying, 'I hope you understand, but I have become a little accustomed now. Not shaking hands, not giving hugs, please don't take offense.' And once you set yourself up that way, most people are very kind and very receptive to understanding," she said. "I think if somebody is getting offended by it, there may be an issue on their part."

For those who do go in for the handshake, Thomas says it's OK to unapologetically grab the hand sanitizer. She said to explain it's just part of life now and then move on.

Thomas believes the handshake and hugs will be back. It's just a matter of time when.

"It may take a year, it may take a couple of years, but I think eventually that we will be right back where we were before," she said.

This story was originally published by Tory Dunnan on Scripps station WPTV in Palm Beach, Florida.