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December 17, 2010 2:41 AM   Subscribe

How do you politely shake hands with someone who has an impaired right hand ?

This weekend, I will be meeting (socially) with one of my wife’s clients. His right hand is noticeably afflicted (think Bob Dole), and in my two previous meetings with him, I have been inconsistent. The first time I choked, and offered my left hand, and he graciously complied.The next meeting, I forgot about his condition and reached out with my right hand, and again he graciously complied. I felt awkward both times, especially since he did not offer up any clues. Perhaps he is comfortable either way, and I am over-thinking it. I am curious as to how others may handle this situation, from either perspective.
posted by lobstah to Human Relations (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Someone I know with a deformed right hand (is that the right way to put that) will shake with either. Kind of like your instance.
posted by salvia at 2:46 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask him?
posted by pharm at 2:46 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Left hand and look him in the eye.
posted by three blind mice at 3:27 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It looks like Bob Dole preferred to shake with his left hand (until it got injured as well), so I'd go with that, too, or else don't shake hands at all.
posted by hazyjane at 3:34 AM on December 17, 2010

Why do you have to shake his hand? Go for an exploding fist bump or simply say hello.

Pharm's suggestion would be the way to go if you want to actually know the answer. This is going to depend on the individual.
On the other hand, until he expresses otherwise, it seems that he is comfortable with either hand.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:42 AM on December 17, 2010

I would wait for him to make the first move, shake whichever hand he offers.
posted by missmagenta at 3:55 AM on December 17, 2010 [7 favorites]

Shake the left hand - well, that's what's happened with the two people I've met like that. One was a guy who'd been a bomb victim and had only two fingers left at all, both on his left hand. The other had a congenital problem and shook with his left hand.

If in doubt, move your right hand a little and see which hand they lead with. Don't worry, they won't feel awkward because it will have happened a billion times before.

And yes, look them in the eye.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:08 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would wait for him to make the first move, shake whichever hand he offers.

Depends on the circumstances. If you are introducing yourself, you should be the one to extend your hand.

I think the main point is that it's shaking hands. This is not a big deal. Don't make it awkward. It's not an embarrassing secret that his right hand is disabled. Even if he can grasp you, he cannot do so on equal terms if you're sticking your right hand out.

I used to know a Vietnam Vet who wore an actual hook in place of the right hand he left behind there. He would purposefully extend it to people who didn't know him when shaking hands just to freak them out - and then quickly pull it back, give a big smile, and put out the left, because he was actually a very friendly and great guy and not at all as scary as he looked.
posted by three blind mice at 4:18 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Depends on the circumstances. If you are introducing yourself, you should be the one to extend your hand.

In this instance though, the OP has met the person at least twice before.
posted by missmagenta at 4:31 AM on December 17, 2010

Yes, generally in this sort of situation, if you can, wait for them to lead, but since you've already shaken both hands, I expect this person is comfortable with either. I don't think asking is the end of the world either, as you get to know this person. ("Joe, do you have a hand-shaking preference?" "Either is fine." "Okay, I just didn't want to accidentally cause any discomfort!")

Really the "worst-case scenario" is that you extend your right hand and they offer their left and you do that "opposite hand over-under shake thing." Which sometimes I have to do with people anyway because I have my toddler in my right arm and only have a left to shake with. Which has led me to learn that 99% of people aren't thrown a bit by non-standard hand-shaking and, if anything, people are a little extra-warm because they have to think about it for two seconds.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:32 AM on December 17, 2010

Wrist shake is normal for such situations here in Russia where handshaking is mandatory. Grasp the right wrist and proceed as normal.

Alternatively, just shake as normal. It's not a big deal.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:41 AM on December 17, 2010

I've been in that situation, and you really shouldn't worry about it. If it was physically or mentally uncomfortable for them to shake with their right hand, theyd've offered their left. The fact that they've been fine shaking with their right hand in the past means you should definitely stick with that. To do otherwise would just be treating them different for no reason.
posted by pablocake at 4:48 AM on December 17, 2010

I have actually shaken hands with Bob Dole, and I don't remember it being a problem. I also don't remember which hand he proffered, but that is because I simply grasped (lightly) the one he did proffer. Not a problem.

So, just shake the one they put out there.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:44 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Follow their lead
posted by Flood at 5:49 AM on December 17, 2010

I'd go with the right hand, but either way is fine. It's a bigger deal for you than for him, I assure you. He's used to it.
posted by pjaust at 5:54 AM on December 17, 2010

I've got a friend whose right hand is shorter than the left (missing the elbow->wrist bone, but still has a fully functional hand). You're over thinking it. He's used to it. Try to go with the left, but if you forget and use the right - it won't matter at all. Eye contact will be the most important part, don't act embarrassed that you mixed up the hands: just shake, look him in the eyes, and say "hello."
posted by ish__ at 6:22 AM on December 17, 2010

My mom has CP and her right hand is small and limp. She doesn't really care which hand, she cares more about the awkward "Which hand?" moment. So pick one and be decisive. Don't call attention to it in any way.
posted by chelseagirl at 7:36 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's no universally established protocol for this situation, so I doubt that anyone is going to be able to give you a universally applicable answer.

However, it's likely that any felt awkwardness stems mostly from your own reaction. If you get flustered trying to decide the correct thing, folks will notice. Whichever hand you choose, shake with him confidently and respectfully - you'll come out OK.
posted by owls at 8:09 AM on December 17, 2010

Just take your lead from them. I once arrived at a new temp assignment and automatically reached out my hand to shake the hand of my new manager, only to realize belatedly he was missing his right arm.
posted by canine epigram at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2010

I'd go with right hand until told or shown otherwise. Firstly, this guy has dealt with this for as long as his hand has been messed up and he's certainly not going to be mad at your for trying to give him a polite, adult greeting. Secondly, it usually seems best to treat a disabled person as near as possible as you would treat anyone else.
posted by spaltavian at 9:46 AM on December 17, 2010

I knew a dude who had a perfectly normal left hand, but what looked like a lobster claw for a right hand. He always extended his left hand when you approached him, graciously answering your unasked question.

If this fella you're meeting doesn't offer up some sort of clue like that, just sidestep the whole thing. Tip your hat or nod your head or hit your chest with your fist and say, "'Sup, dawg?" This guy deals with 'the hand issue' on a daily basis; follow his cues for dealing with it.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:55 AM on December 17, 2010

I'm guessing you live in the States. Similar to the reference to Russia above, in France, one is expected to greet everyone with kisses or handshakes, depending on who is who, setting &c. This rule has no exceptions and, if you happen to meet someone at a moment when their hands are filthy from work or any other circumstance that makes a ready shake awkward, they will find something for you to grab and shake, even if it's an elbow. I bet you thought I was going to say...where was I. So, yeah, offer up the hand if it is proper to do so (I'm sure there are other rules that might apply) and know that the awkwardness is not that at all — it's you feeling a way based on a fixed expectation. I do love this about France, although when screwing it up, your father-in-law will be sure to notice.
posted by Dick Paris at 5:07 PM on December 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input. As luck would have it, I met him by surprise at a Holiday party tonight. He offered his right hand...and the rest is history !
posted by lobstah at 6:43 PM on December 17, 2010

Since lobstah hasn't marked this as resolved, I'll add my two cents.

There is an actual etiquette protocol for hand-shaking. When two people meet, the socially or professionally "superior" of the two determines whether to offer his or her hand, and the "inferior" waits for the offer. Socially, the most basic criteria are sex (women rank higher) and age (the older in age ranks higher). In a professional or work situation, rank is more obvious and trumps other criteria.

Of course these days very few people have these subtleties by heart, and could make a determination about what to do in the few seconds available in such situations. But as Miss Manners has said again and again, etiquette is not a vicious conspiracy to make you feel like an idiot, but a simple code of behavior to help people get along with each other comfortably.

In your case, etiquette might have obviated your problem, since your wife's client could be considered, by extension, your employer, and therefore would outrank you. You would have waited to see which hand he offered -- or, for that matter, whether he offered to shake hands at all.

As it happened, simple goodwill between you and your wife's client made everything easy. Where goodwill can't be taken for granted, etiquette gives you a fallback.
posted by Srudolph at 4:52 AM on December 18, 2010

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