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How To Handle That Awkward 'I Know You're Sick' Handshake

If a client, colleague, or business partner is sick, do you still have to shake hands with them? Our etiquette columnist explains.

Q: If a client, colleague, or business partner is sick, do I still have to shake hands with them?

Dear Hands On,

Greeting others with a firm grip is often one of the first connections (both figuratively and literally) that you’ll make on the job. It’s also seen by many as a sign of confidence and competence. So basic rules of etiquette suggest that you should proceed.

If you’re in the company of friends or close comrades, poking fun at the experience (“Mind if we fist bump it out instead?”) may help alleviate tension. But as North America’s most popular way of selling hello in business—hugs and high-fives being a sorely underrated art—it’s often far easier (and far less awkward) to simply go through with it.

Being polite does not mean you have to shake a sick acquaintance’s paw like a Polaroid picture, nor does it preclude you from sprinting off to shower in hand sanitizer the minute they’re out of eyesight.

If you’re the one who’s sick, exchanges will be equally awkward for other people. To prevent spreading germs, take medicine to address symptoms of illness and apply hand sanitizer liberally to your hands before making contact. A simple apology (“Sorry, I’ve been feeling under the weather, and would hate to get you sick”) can help you avoid unwanted exchanges. Likewise, if you’re approaching from a distance, you can also preempt greetings with a smile, wave, and quick explanation. (“Oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you … forgive me for being rude, but I’ve got a cold I just can’t seem to shake!”) Ultimately, whatever the scenario, how you handle the exchange is every bit as important as how you execute the actual handshake.

Staring down the prospect of making contact with someone who’s sniffling and sneezing, or putting them in a similar position? Perhaps the smartest thing to do is simply read people’s moods and consider the professional context. Sometimes the direct approach is best, sometimes a polite deflection is merited instead.

In all cases, be sure to take your vitamins, get enough sleep, and consider calling into work sick  if you don’t need to be at your desk. Healthy expressions of warmth and gratitude needn’t require you to carry a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you travel, or come at the expense of anyone’s health.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.