Columbus etiquette expert Cathi Fallon on waves, bows, curtsies, Vulcan salutes, elbow bumps and physical contact in the age of coronavirus

For 20 years, Cathi Fallon has helped people master the art of the handshake. The founder of the Columbus-based Etiquette Institute of Ohio, Fallon teaches her clients (business people, college students and others) the importance of making a good first impression—and a firm, friendly handshake has always been at the heart of that lesson.

Now, the COVID-19 epidemic is threatening that central tenet. Public health officials across the globe are discouraging unnecessary physical contact to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, putting our most common form of greeting in jeopardy. Of course, shaking hands has been frowned upon during previous communicable disease outbreaks, but the current pandemic has been unlike anything Columbus has seen in more than a century. Forced to isolate since mid-March, as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other public leaders have taken drastic measures to protect the populace, Central Ohio residents can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever shake hands again once they return to their schools, churches, offices, coffeehouses and networking luncheons.

Fallon has begun to prepare her clients for this new reality. “We have five to seven seconds to make a first impression, and that handshake has always been what brings genuine warmth to that introduction,” she says. “It’s your welcome mat. So we need to figure out: How do we do that without shaking hands?”

While others have advocated for more hygienic physical greetings such as the elbow bump, Fallon isn’t a fan. “The elbow bump is awkward,” she says. For informal settings, she prefers to introduce a bit of humor into the interaction, perhaps with a military salute, peace sign, the Vulcan salute from Star Trek or even a curtsy. “I’d do that, but probably only with women,” Fallon says. “I wouldn’t do a curtsy if I was greeting a man.”

None of those options, however, can replace the handshake in a formal business setting, she says. For that environment, Fallon has developed what she calls a “virtual handshake.” It involves a subtle head bow, with a bright smile, strong eye contact and a slight wave (or hands clasped together). 

Fallon laments the potential loss of the traditional handshake. “When you have skin-to-skin human contact, it releases those feel-good chemicals in the brain, and I hate to lose that—but modern etiquette changes with the time,” she says. Without physical contact, other parts of the greeting (eye contact, voice, physical presence) grow in importance, she explains. “That body language is going to become even more effective when you can’t reach your hand out and extend that warmth,” Fallon says.

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