Posted in Business Development

A Cough, A Sneeze, And An Unavoidable Handshake: The Etiquette Of A Sticky Business Situation - By Gail Kasper

 Gail Kasper is an Author, Television Host, Certified Fitness Trainer, and Motivational Speaker.


What do you do when someone blatantly sneezes or coughs into their hands, and then reaches out to shake your hand? Yes, it is an awkward situation. With the advent of new infectious diseases, such as H1N1 and SARS, lack of hand hygiene is also a potentially serious incident. 


Sneezing and coughing can propel viruses into the air, where they can infect others. Airborne viruses can survive for hours. People do cough and sneeze irresponsibly. The American Society for Microbiology, made up of infection control experts, has done multiple U.S. studies that reveal that hand hygiene is not practiced 100%. An average 1/3 of people skip hand washing, even after a visit to the rest room. So what do you do when facing that hand that has just been coughed or sneezed into?


The situation is tricky. If you shake hands there is a danger of virus exposure, if you don't shake hands there is a danger of offending the other party (they may feel rejected). To prepare in advance, you can stock up on hand sanitizer products and keep some in your bag, briefcase or vehicle for risky social situations. 


So, someone sneezes or coughs into their hand. You witness this and then they extend their hand in greeting! What do you do here? There are a few options, which I'll review shortly, but first do this. Pause for a brief moment, a second really, and ask yourself about the person. How well and in what capacity do you know this person? Now consider the situation.


If this is a purely professional meeting, not a friend or guest at a party, for example, what do you risk by offending the other person? Are you in a foreign country? If so, is failure to shake an extended hand a cultural offense? Would not shaking hands be considered the unpleasant or truly rude gesture? Reflect upon these questions. The following options are divided by formal and informal situations.


Informal Atmosphere


Your problem, you are facing someone who has extended their germ covered hand at a dinner party, or in another casual atmosphere. It could be drinks with coworkers or business contacts, but either way it isn't terribly formal or overly important. Just remember, superiors or customers may take offense; you may have no other option than to “shake” and then “wash up.” Appropriate etiquette is to “shake.” However, there are a few options below which may help you exit the situation gracefully. Here's what you can do:


1. Keep your hands full with drinks and appetizers, and remember to smile warmly and nod a greeting when introduced.


2. Quickly offer the sneezer a drink or appetizer to fill their hands and avoid the physical contact.


3. Another option, which only works well if you haven't obviously already been shaking hands with people, is to claim that you may be sick and do not wish to spread the potential illness to others. This can work very well, assuming no one can put a dent in your story.


4. Related to the previous option, you can sneeze, or fake a sneeze, into your own hand and then apologize and excuse yourself to the bathroom to wash your hands.


5. In a truly informal setting, with friends and family, simply say politely, with a joking manner, something like "Aw, go wash your hands "or" Hey now, don't try and get me sick. Go wash your hands." Remember to be as sensitive as possible when delivering such comments to avoid coming off as unkind. 


6. One last ditch effort to remain germ free involves a bait-and-switch technique. You ignore the outstretched hand and go ahead and slightly hug the person, or lightly embrace their shoulder in a friendly gesture (unless it is inappropriate for the relationship). The person will be distracted by the bait and won't notice the switch… that you have rejected their outstretched hand. Remember, although avoiding direct contact with the potentially germ-ridden hand is achieved, you may still be at risk for virus exposure with the close physical contact.


7. If you feel obligated to shake hands… do so. Then quickly excuse yourself and go wash your hands well, with soap and water, and/or use a hand sanitizer.


Formal Atmosphere


This situation is a bit trickier. Whether an upscale prestigious event, a high level business function, or an important formal meeting, you will obviously have fewer options. In cases such as this you may also have to be culturally sensitive. 


Never assume, for instance, in business meetings of an international nature that someone from another culture will agree that it is impolite to sneeze or cough and then shake hands with someone else. The best choice in such situations is to attempt to avoid offending the person. This does put you at risk of getting sick or generally feeling disturbed by an unhygienic act, but in most formal situations its best to not risk offending the other party. The options for attempting to avoid shaking hands after a cough or sneeze in such situations are:


1. You may, in very specific formal settings, easily manage to keep your hands full with drinks and food, such as when attending wedding receptions and business events. If so, then be glad you can carefully manage to avoid offending anyone in the introductions. Remember now, smile brightly, be charming, and make up for the fact your hands are full when introduced. Do not simply use full hands as an excuse and introduce your self terribly because of them.


2. Now there will be occasions, where you know you will offend if you do not shake the other person's hand. Yes, it will happen… and what can you do then? Dive in and shake their hand, keep your manners polite. Then, at your very earliest convenience, race to the nearest restroom and give your hands a thorough deep cleaning with soap and water. And be mindful not to say to anyone anything about it, you do not want the situation to reflect negatively upon your new acquaintance. Take the high road here and make a small sacrifice, it is worth it!


3. Remember the bait-and-switch. In a formal situation, where a hug probably isn't appropriate, you can smile hugely and bow. This may make you seem a little eccentric, but if performed graciously could be perceived as genteel.


4. The last option, as mentioned earlier, is to claim you yourself are recovering from illness. In certain business meetings you may be able to pull this off. But remember, consider very carefully what you risk if you happen to offend someone.


There you have it, a number of specific options to handle an awkward and potentially unpleasant situation. In summary:


•Step 1: Carefully consider the person and the situation.


•Step 2: Be aware of the formality of the event you're attending. 


•Step 3: Choose the option or options that will work best for you under the circumstances.


Also, you can stock up on hand sanitizer products, and be certain to have some in your bag, briefcase or vehicle, for risky social situations. Again, remember to be kind in situations like this. Carefully deliver your response in any situation to avoid offending those close to you and you'll pass this etiquette issue with flying colors. Do take the time to research or explore cultural norms when you expect to interact with individuals from other backgrounds. Hopefully you feel more prepared, more aware of the options, and generally capable of addressing a situation involving a germ filled handshake.


About Gail Kasper:

Mid-1998, Gail Kasper started her business from a  small one-bedroom apartment, with no money and no clients. Today, Gail  is the host of the late-night television show Raw Reality, one of the  nation's leading speakers, author, Top 1% Club Mentor, advice  columnist, Certified Fitness Trainer, Ms. Continental America 2008,  and the creator of SAD-T™ (Systematic Attitude Development- Technique™). A former Contributing Editor to Success Magazine with the  "Ask Gail" column and host of the "Ask Gail" segment on the Comcast  morning show, Gail is the author of her self-help autobiography  Another Day Without A Cage: My Breakthrough From Self-Imprisonment ToTotal Empowerment and the self-help parable Unstoppable: 6 Easy Steps  To Achieve Your Goals. With national media appearances that include  Inside Edition, The Today Show, FOX Business News, and Oprah and  Friends, Gail has earned the ranking of an in-demand national media  personality who has been the topic of discussion on Regis and Kelly.  Also, the current host of the Philadelphia Visitors Channel, she has  also made numerous appearances on network affiliates that include ABC,  FOX, CW11, Comcast, and CBS, where she co-hosted the Emmy award- winning America's TVJobNetwork.


This article is courtesy of the Top 1% Club and the Top 1% Club Mentor Gail Kasper. For additional information on Gail Kasper, her television appearances and speaking engagements, please visit