Like many people with forms of autoimmune arthritis, I find it difficult to shake hands. The joints in my hands are often swollen and painful, so if someone goes for a firm job-interview type grip it’s likely to be excruciating for me. I have Raynaud's phenomenon, which mean I wear gloves or mittens all the time and somehow that just seems too much like shaking hands with a sock-puppet. Added to that, I walk with a crutch on my right-side, so if I’m standing I’m going to have to juggle crutch, bags and balance issues to be able to greet you.
I don’t expect anyone to be psychic. Even if you know someone has autoimmune arthritis, that doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of whether they will or won’t shake your hand, as it affects people in different ways. This can sometimes lead to some awkwardness, when a handshake is refused. Of course no-one wants to be left hanging, so I’ve compiled a handy list of appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with the situation.
- Carry on as if nothing has happened
This is really the best way to go. It’s not really a big deal, and the quicker you move on the quicker the awkwardness goes away.
- Acknowledge the awkwardness
If you don’t feel you can just move on, acknowledging the fact that the situation is a bit awkward, and then moving on, is a good way to go.
Not at the person! Never at the person. But if you can all laugh when you feel uncomfortable, it breaks the tension and all is well in the world again.
- Insist on shaking hands
If someone is refusing to take your hand, whatever the reason, don’t push them. Often if the issue is pushed, I feel I have to relent and shake hands. This may seem like it makes the awkwardness go away, but it will likely cause me pain which will result in me avoiding you in future.
- Punch the person
Sometimes you might want to try and find an alternative to shaking hands. There are some alternatives that are suitable – waving, a gentle pat on the back, a hug (depending on how well you know each other!)
Some things will depend on the person and how their joints are affected. A high five or fist pump may be okay (as long as it’s gentle) or for some people this may be even worse than a handshake. If you’re not sure, ask.
Then there are other alternatives that are never a good idea – punching people hard on the shoulder for example (yes, someone really did this and yes they did then have to catch me when I nearly fell over.) FYI, people generally don’t like to be punched under any circumstances, but if you’ve just met them and they’ve just told you they have a chronic pain condition, this is a very bad idea and you’re likely never to see them again!
- Bring it up repeatedly/apologise repeatedly
You don’t really need to apologise in this situation. As I said, I don’t expect people to be psychic, so I’m not going to get upset that you didn’t guess that I don’t want to shake hands. However, repeatedly drawing attention to it, either by apologising or just making comments/jokes about it can get frustrating. There’s only so many times you can say “it’s fine” or fake-laugh before you start to feel silly and embarrassed. The quicker you move on, the better.
- Imply the person is germ-phobic and/or racist
This is a sure fire way to make a situation more uncomfortable! Generally if you make this kind of comment, you will get a stunned silence in reply as the person tries to figure out whether you’re serious or just have a dark sense of humour. I think the time this happened to me, it was a case of weird sense of humour, but I felt horrible about the possibility that they really were offended. In general, try not to take offence about the fact that someone won’t shake your hand. It’s not about you – a greeting is just not worth that much pain.
- Little Miss Autoimmune