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My employer’s New York City offices have started to welcome those who wish to show up in person ahead of the company’s mandatory return-to-office date, still a few months away. I initially poked in out of curiosity, and then to excavate my desk and get situated, and finally to figure out how the on-site dining options worked. This last step got its hooks into me; last week I showed up three days out of five, quite literally coming for the lunch and staying for the work. I have seen this effect spread; my floor seems a little more full every day, leading to the sincere pleasure of meeting work-colleagues in person for the first time since my mid-summer hire date.
On one recent day, I met three workspace-neighbors in a short span of time, and without thinking offered a handshake to each. In every case, a barely perceptible beat passed before they returned the gesture. This left me feeling a little awkward, aware of how enthusiastically I wanted to transgress against a pandemic-era norm. (For what it’s worth, this thrice-over identical reaction came from two men and a woman, of varying ages.)
And so, I made a Twitter poll, and I left it up for one day, and this is how it begging-your-pardon shook out:
Meeting a coworker in-person for the first time. You both know you're both vaccinated, due to office rules. Do you offer to shake hands, like in the old days?— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) October 12, 2021
Among twenty-five respondents, there existed a tidy two-to-one vote against the idea of shaking hands with a coworker, even if you both know that you are both vaccinated. This is not what I expected to see. While obviously not at all a scientific survey, these lopsided results still gave me pause.
In casual conversation around this poll, I picked up an undercurrent that plenty of my colleagues abhorred shaking hands, and that they have for their whole lives! They have merely tolerated it as an unavoidable social obligation, all this time. My friends offered a range of reasons, including distaste for a perceived macho ritual, the aversion to unnecessary touch that neuro-diverse people commonly have, or simply discomfort when people squeeze too hard.
I cannot exactly recall where or from whom I learned handshaking etiquette while quite young—and to be firm about it, like a man!—but I’ve rather enjoyed the little ritual ever since. I have eagerly clasped and squeezed hands of every sort, beyond count. And yet, before this month, I never pondered how many of these hands’ owners didn’t enjoy the contact nearly as much.
Today, I have begun to experiment with not shaking hands, instead opting for the little palm-to-breastbone bow—more of an exaggerated nod, really—that I took up over the pandemic. I’ve had plenty of chance to practice, while the office continues filling up. Most people accept this maneuver without comment, but I left at least one person awkwardly pumping a ghost-hand in the air, suggesting I should still read the situation a little closer and apply the old methods when requested.
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