Long Time, No See: Can I Get a Hug or a Handshake?

I hadn’t seen my friend and business client Emilio since before the pandemic, but there he was at the shopping center across the street, walking in my direction. I called his name enthusiastically, he looked up, and above his mask, I could see his eyes smile in recognition. I crossed the street and as I approached him, we both extended our arms for a long-overdue hug. After all, that’s how we had always greeted each other before the global pandemic.

But partway into the embrace, we had an awkward moment. “Wait, are you hugging?” I heard my muffled voice ask through my mask. Of course, it was already too late. Our enthusiasm, inertia, and force of habit had already determined how we would greet each other.

The following week, an article from LinkedIn News entitled, “Etiquette post-COVID is a Bit Murky,” hit home for me. It also made me think about the many professionals whose workplaces and office policies are changing to allow (and perhaps even in some cases encourage) in-person meetings.

While you may think you know how friends and family members you haven’t seen in person for many months are feeling about getting together again, you can’t be sure when it comes to clients, contacts, or prospects. And that’s something to be mindful of as we begin returning to business as (sort of) usual.

It is critical to assess contact comfort level when restarting your in-person business development.

After having been isolated for over a year, you may automatically – maybe even more enthusiastically than before – go back to your old ways when seeing a client or contact, quickly going in for a hug or a handshake. But now, at least for the coming months, you’ll need to act against your natural social tendencies and make an effort to ensure your greeting is comfortable for the other person.

A simple, “Are you okay with a handshake/hug?” will do, but as I learned from my exchange with Emilio, the delivery of the question is important. Sure, it may at first feel awkward taking this extra step, but what’s more important is that you don’t make it awkward for the other person. You must ask the question before you’ve entered their physical space in a neutral tone that doesn’t make the prospective handshake or hug feel obligatory or make the other person feel like they’re being silly or overly cautious for declining.

That’s a lot to manage given how we’ve all been socialized to behave up until March of 2020.

Neutral body language is equally important. If you don’t stop and ask how the prospect feels about physical contact before extending your hand or throwing your arms wide open, you may make the gesture even more awkward to refuse for both of you.

I am now practicing these new habits as opportunities arise to reconnect with people in both my work and social networks. As an avid hugger, I can confess it can be difficult. But, while I’m genuinely excited to see people in person again, the last thing I want to do is to create an uncomfortable moment from the outset of our reunion, especially if it establishes an uneasy tone for a potentially important meeting.

This article is the first in a new series of monthly blog posts entitled, “Post-pandemic Business Tips”. 

Authored by David Ackert