I was reading a post by another muslim lady about the awkward situation of being expected to shake hands with men, especially at work. Once I got going on my reply, I realized I’d considerably outwritten the original question, as so often happens, so I decided to post my tips on their own. Maybe it will help someone else as well :). If you have thoughts to add, please do by all means!
Although (like anything) it can’t be said to be universal, most muslims avoid unnecessary touching between men and women of the opposite sex, who are not close relatives (or married). Shaking hands can be quite problematic in this area, since it can be downright insulting not to do so, and it’s expected in certain circumstances. People regularly evaluate others on the “quality” of their handshake, as well (I’ve always been cautioned to avoid the “limp noodle”). Avoiding shaking hands is also an area where I’ve struggled a lot, especially at job interviews. So, I thought I would share some tips in handling it. It CAN be done, but it can be harder than it seems. (More fun types of handshakes… we’re shooting for the last one, but less sad :D)
On numerous occasions I have shaken hands by reflex. In fact I have to prepare myself in advance to be conscious that a handshake will likely be offered in order to be prepared to reject it! I think this is partly because I was trained from a young age to shake hands, I was in martial arts classes from age 7 and it’s customary to shake hands before and after each practice session with each person and upon encountering any person (even if you have met them before). So in the course of single class you would have shaken hands with everyone dozens of times. By the time I converted to Islam, shaking hands was like an automatic body memory for me, when a hand is stuck out, my hand jumps to respond. In fact even if I’m consciously planning not to shake hands, sometimes my arm sort of jumps like I’m GOING to shake hands and then I jam it back in my pocket (which is especially confusing to the other person).
Incidentally, I have the same problem from the same source with bowing automatically, luckily most people in the U.S. do not bow on meeting. But, I have accidentally bowed on entering buildings I’m not familiar with (because of bowing at the threshold on entering the dojang) and if someone else bows to me, my body jumps and bows back at them before I even think twice (unless I’m prepared, which usually I’m not). I had a funny situation with this when I had a new Japanese exchange student roommate in college. We introduced ourselves, and she started to bow, but suppressed it (doubtless remembering this was not customary in the U.S.). Unfortunately, triggered by her bow, I then ALSO started to bow, but then I backed up when she did, but then, seeing that I had bowed, she bowed again. Then I bowed. Hilarity ensued.
Despite my frequent slip-ups where my hand gets out there before I consciously suppress it, I do try not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. In fact, if I’m being introduced to a mixed group of people, I generally just don’t shake hands with anybody, as people seem to find it more insulting if I shake hands with women but then DON’T shake hands with men. Of course, when I’m being introduced to a group of muslim women and everybody wants to kiss and hug, that’s also awkward. Flashbacks to family reunions of youth and musty unknown relatives. But I endure.
Anyway, it’s not all bad. There’s always the obvious solution: the awkwardly offered religious explanation, but that alone does not always breed good will and makes some of us just want to throw up our hands altogether. It can at least be as equally nerve-wracking to contemplate. Here are some things I have found out in the course of avoiding handshakes that might make it a little easier to jump into/persevere:
1) A lot of people offer to shake hands with you but then when you don’t stick your hand out, they say, “Oh, I bet you don’t shake hands because of your religion.” This has been happening to me more frequently. In this case they are not offended, it was just automatic for them too and then they realized it. Nice :).
2) A lot of non-muslims don’t like to shake hands either. They may be relieved rather than offended. I was surprised to discover this one time, when I was on the OTHER side of an interview board and we were looking at a new candidate (interviews are the worst for me, making me really worry about handshaking because it’s all formalized). Anyway, while we (a group of 6 or so including my boss, with me the only muslim) were waiting for the first interviewee to come in, someone said dispiritedly, “So, are we going to do the whole hand shaking thing?” Everybody groaned and moaned and several people added how much they disliked this routine and couldn’t we leave it out. It was decided we would just not do it and everyone was relieved.
3) I’ll follow that up with a story about how before I converted, probably around age 14 or so, I was introduced to a woman and I promptly stuck my hand out, only to have her not respond (she said Hi, but didn’t acknowledge the hand). This was the first time this had happened to me and I was somewhat taken aback. Later, someone told me that while shaking hands is standard for men, it’s not standard for women. While in practice I’ve had plenty of people try to shake hands with me, it seems it’s not just a muslim thing. (In retrospect, in this particular case it may also have had to do with the fact that I was working in a stable and she didn’t want to get all grimy. But I digress).
4) The easiest way I’ve found to avoid spur-of-the-moment hand shaking is to have something in your hand It also helps suppress the reflex to respond. This could be putting your hands in your pocket (lease effective), grabbing your purse, a water bottle, even last-minute hand lotion, (desperate? a kleenex visible in the hand really suppresses the urge of the other person to want to shake your hand), but the best thing is some kind of papers or notebook firmly gripped in your hand, preferably enough to prevent juggling around too much. Very few people will keep trying to maneuver around this. I respond to the introduction as enthusiastically as possible to make it clear that the lack of handshake is not a snub, again with my hands firmly occupied so there’s not even the hint of an attempt by me (any false move will often prompt the other person to stick out their hand even if they didn’t do so initially). The thing is, once I get over initially NOT shaking hands, especially if the other person stuck their hand out and I didn’t, I have found that most people clue in and are not totally bewildered as to why I didn’t shake hands. They get it, even if they aren’t familiar with Islam. If they ARE totally bewildered (or not bewildered by seem insulted) I offer an explanation, but otherwise, I frequently don’t as it seems to cause more embarrassment to the other person as well (if they did “get” it, but late).
5) Worse scenario: attempted handshake or (horrors) HUG by a muslim man, after “Assalamou alaikum.” What the what? Dodging is best here since an explanation is obviously not what is lacking. This species also serves to confuse non-muslims present especially if you use the “but in Islam we don’t shake hands with the opposite sex” spiel when they’ve already encountered other muslims who did.
Of course, if you’re going to go the awkward route with handshakes, it’s hard to do much better than Rhys Darby (skip to 47 seconds for the handshake part). Perhaps the humor-inclined amongst you can come up with a contrasting handshake-avoidance routine :):