Today, with the pandemic still weighing heavily on the minds of some people, there are different degrees of concern about close contact with others. Some people have returned to their normal pre-Covid behavior, either shaking hands enthusiastically or even enveloping those they meet with big hugs. At the other end of the spectrum, a few people are still extremely cautious, avoiding touching or even approaching too closely. Many others fall somewhere in between.
At conferences and other events, these varying inclinations can make interactions awkward. People are returning to events and encountering both old friends and strangers. Does one rush to hug a friend not seen in person for a few years, or will that friend recoil in terror? Even a proffered hand risks an embarrassing rejection.
How To Avoid Awkward Greetings
Whether you are greeting an old friend or making a new acquaintance, you can avoid awkwardness by not rushing forward into their space, fully committed to your hug or handshake. Instead, you can more subtly signal your intent and observe the other person’s reaction.
According to nonverbal communication expert Vanessa Van Edwards, the starting point is to signal your intent from a distance. If you approach someone with one hand forward and the opposite shoulder back, you are showing you want to shake hands.
“If you want a handshake, I would lead hand first… literally from across the room,” Van Edwards advises. The phrase, “It’s so good to see you!” can be used with this, or any other style of greeting.
According to Van Edwards, “If you want to hug, the universal gesture of hug is an open body with two open palms.
If you prefer no touch at all, she continues, “You should leave your hands by your side and give a nod from far away.”
Planning ahead is important, according to Van Edwards. “We have to be more purposeful because that’s the only way we’re going to conquer this awkwardness. So, before your next interaction, think about what touch you want, or no touch at all, and be sure you cue it ahead of time.”
Watch for cues
Being intentional about your desired level of contact and communicating it via body language should avoid most problems. But, in some cases the other person may be operating under different rules of engagement.
To make the encounter go smoothly, watch for signals as you approach the other person. If they mirror your own posture, all is good. Go ahead and hug or shake. If they don’t mirror you automatically, it’s likely they prefer less contact. Adapt your greeting to whatever they appear to be signaling.
If the other person ignores your cue for a handshake (or nod) and rushes toward you with arms ready to surround you with a bear hug, avoiding awkwardness may be a bit more difficult. Smiling warmly and extending a hand should be enough to avoid the embrace. Your counterpart can hardly hug you if your outstretched arm is blocking them.
If your enthusiastic friend ignored your nod and arms pinned to your side, though, you are more vulnerable to encirclement. Avoid off-putting facial expressions that suggest they might be your personal Typhoid Mary. Keep smiling, use the “great to see you” line, but don’t show inclination to return the hug if you are avoiding such contact. If your arms remain at your side, your reluctance should be evident as they close in.
If they remain oblivious to your signals, you can step back slightly and apologize with a friendly, “Sorry, I’m still being careful.”
It’s unlikely that you’ll frequently encounter people who don’t pick up on your contact cues, though – humans naturally interpret the posture and gestures of others and usually respond appropriately without conscious thought.
The Future of Greetings
I’ve observed less angst about human contact in the months since events began returning to normal. For a variety of reasons, people are much less concerned about Covid today than they were even six months ago. But disease isn’t the only reason to be intentional about greetings.
Hugs communicate warmth and increase oxytocin levels in both people. A firm handshake with an open posture communicates strength, reliability, and trust. Even absent health concerns though, every individual has their own personal contact preferences. A warm embrace welcomed by some might make others uncomfortable. Cultural differences can play a role, too.
So, even after the pandemic becomes a distant memory, it will still be important to signal your intentions early and carefully observe the other person’s behavior. By the time you are close enough to touch, you’ll be in sync with each other and nobody will feel awkward.