Put‘er There: The Social Skills Behind Our Most Common of Greetings

Since human relationships are directly tied to culture, it makes sense that refined social skills are vital for a healthy work environment. Culture dictates our sense of safety and acceptance, which directly impacts workplace productivity and engagement. In my recent article Clever Conversation: The Positive Effects of Social Skills on Office Culture, I offered an outlier example of how I once morphed into a workplace culture and got some desired results (does the angry chef ring a bell?) That situation occurred more than a decade ago, yet my heart rate soars each time I recall the anxiety-filled evening.

To follow up, I’d like to explore the nature of a familiar social skills norm— a ritual of sorts that when embraced can build trust and connection in real time. This effective tool also comes with some frustrations, especially for women, and has revealed itself to be the source of many professional women’s struggles. I’m referring to the centerpiece of the first impression: the ancient and widely-used greeting known in our time as the handshake. As simple as this gesture may seem, it can yield powerful results….or powerful challenges.

Truly Pleased To Meet You.

Of course you’ve heard the term “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” But here’s a stat that demonstrates just how critical it is: It takes .07 seconds to create a first impression, and a lifetime to reverse that impression. Here’s another: At first glance, we subconsciously make 11 different assumptions about another person! As such, the aesthetics of an initial ‘contact’ are indispensable, and in traditional business situations, we are encouraged to offer up a firm handshake, complete with eye contact and a smile.

Mastering this moment of initial interaction is a vital social skill that installs trust in a young relationship. The practice of shaking hands began in Greece in the 5th century B.C. as a symbol of peace (while demonstrating that neither person was carrying a weapon). But modern fMRI technology confirms that such appropriate physical touch releases oxytocin, inspiring a modicum of trust for both parties.

The Gender Dilemma

I enjoy acknowledging the neurochemical advantage to shaking hands, but it also leaves me with frustration. I’m clearly not alone in noticing that in work situations, men typically shake hands with their male colleagues as a matter of daily greeting— a formality that isn’t extended to female colleagues and doesn’t exist between female colleagues. This even happens outside the workplace, as evidenced recently when I invited a male heating technician into my home. We conversed pleasantly, but a formal greeting never occurred. When my husband entered the scene, however, the two of them instinctively shook hands and assumed control of the conversation. The same informal greeting structure tends to cross over into all social scenarios….at kids’ sporting events, being welcomed to bed & breakfasts, etc.

The conclusion is clear-cut: Women are under pressure to decide between the handshake and the platonic embrace, on the fly. I’ve been in this position often, and each time the uncertainty would send a hit of cortisol to my bloodstream. Even worse, I’d be mortified whenever my ‘guess’ was wrong. One time, Jim, a network colleague whom I was at-ease with, had invited me to chat about how DRIVEN could help his company. When I arrived and greeted him, I ‘guessed’ incorrectly and embarrassed each of us. As I reached out for a handshake, he leaned in for a kiss on the cheek, causing my hand to sock him in the belly. Yikes! It’s an example of how this woman hadn’t yet come to terms with “bringing her whole self to work”.

Being Quick On Your Feet

Ever since that awkward jiu-jitsu move on Jim, what’s worked reasonably well for me in workplace situations is intentionally shaking people’s hands, both men and women. I begin to visibly bring my hand out while I’m still a full step away from the person, prompting them to do the same. I approach social situations on more of a case by case basis. This is where observation and empathy work their wonders. If I’m familiar with the person and know that he or she is open to affection, I’ll go in for some sort of embrace. But this is not recommended for everyone, as there are plenty of people who are averse to any kind of familiar touch.

As a follow-up to this social skills article, I’ll explore with you the sister topic to the handshake: Eye Contact. Check back, same time next week.