How to Reject a Handshake During a Pandemic and Not Make It Awkward

For good reason, public health officials often recommend social distancing and limited physical contact with others when faced with a dangerous spread of novel viruses / diseases.

Though the guidelines put forth are recommended for all members of a population to adopt, they often challenge individuals’ social aptitude when it comes time to execute. The recommendations you see on the news and hear from your local officials make total sense; except for when someone – who hasn’t gotten the message – has their hand out for a shake and their eyes locked with yours.

How does one blatantly, and brutally, reject such a normal and habitualized act with a straight face?

No matter how hard we seem to try, our rejection of someone’s hand out for a shake always feels so bad to perform. After we do, we question whether we overreacted to the recommendations we heard on the news. The social atmosphere just doesn’t seem to recover after such an unusual and awkward back and forth.

This article is written to provide you with some guidance on how to more smoothly implement the advice of public health professionals.


Step 1: Break the normalcy of a habitual act with an apology.

Introducing the “no handshake” revelation you’re about to throw out of left field will be the first difficult step in the process of being a shining exemplar of public health practices.

A mistake people make is not planning exactly how they’ll break the flow of such a habitual ceremony. There should be no hesitation in your speech and actions, as any potential awkwardness is always born out of hesitation.

A good first thing to say in the face of someone’s eager extension of their hand out for a good shake is to apologize clearly and directly.

“I’m sorry,” isn’t something people often say as they’re about to shake another person’s hand. Your abrupt apology will do well in capturing their attention, breaking them from the almost automatic act of going in for a handshake, and introducing what you’re about to tell them next.


Step 2: State your quandary clearly and directly. “I’m not shaking hands today.”

In breaking the individual in front of you from their automated act of going for a handshake, you’ll now have their undivided attention. Their hand will likely still be hanging in the breeze waiting for your warm caress. Remain unhinged however, and focus on delivering your next line with confidence.

It’s important to be clear and direct in your communication of what’s happening in a moment which is capable of birthing awkwardness. Be honest, be clear, and be direct with the reason why you broke the flow with your apology.

What are you apologizing for? You’re apologizing for not going for handshakes today. That’s it. Now’s not the time to say why you’re not shaking hands, only that you’re not.

Being concise with your mission statement in the moment will limit any misunderstandings taking place. If the person going for a handshake hasn’t allowed themselves to fall into the pit of awkwardness, they’ll get the clear message that you verbalize.

Assume the individual’s mind is racing out of surprise. Being clear and direct in stating why you broke the flow of such a mundane and normally harmless act is imperative.


Step 3: Citing altruistic reasons for not shaking hands will trap you.

The hardest parts will be out of the way by this phase of the process. If you’ve made it this far without a bead of sweat accumulating above your upper lip, then you’ve set yourself up for success.

This phase of the process will be introduced by either an inquisitive remark from the individual you just rejected, or a silence arising after you reject them. Either way, it’ll be time to explain the reasoning behind your seemingly rude and abrupt act.

Any attempts to make it seem like you’re looking out for the other person will come back to bite you in the behind. It’s a rookie mistake.

Don’t say, “I don’t want to give whatever I have to you,” or, “I’m getting over a cold, I don’t want to infect you.”

Though these reasons seem convenient and irresistible for the protection they can potentially provide, they all fall apart as soon as your counterpart says, “Oh, I don’t care! Get in here!”

At that point, you’ll either have to reveal the real reason why you don’t want to shake their hand, or you’ll have to weigh the risks of contracting a deadly disease with awkwardness looming over your shoulder.

Be honest in your reasoning and explanation. You don’t want to get whatever is going around and are acting based on the advice of public health professionals. That’s your reason. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to be pressured by the individual whose handshake you’re rejecting.


Step 4: It’s okay to mention that you feel bad and awkward.

Don’t feel the need to pretend like this is all normal. It’s not. Handshakes are generally normal and an everyday addition to most people’s days. If you’re interacting with others in a society which isn’t stricken by a virus or plague of some kind, then you’ll be giving handshakes left and right.

Mention how weird and abnormal the act of limiting physical contact is. Express the awkwardness you feel, and that you feel bad for doing it. Basically, assure the person you just brutally rejected that you haven’t gone totally insane. It’s normal to feel awkward about rejecting handshakes out of an attempt to limit the progression of a pandemic.

Express that sense of normalcy by voicing the vulnerabilities you feel in your attempts to follow best practices. You’ll reintroduce yourself as the person those around you know and love after acting in a way which caught them off guard.

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Disclaimer of Opinion: This article is presented only as opinion. It does not make any scientific, factual, or legal claims. Please critically analyze all claims made and independently decide on its validity.