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Sunday, June 14, 2009

If they don't reach back: Hand-shaking etiquette for immunocompromised patients

George Sarnoff's question:
My wife’s immune system is compromised because of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. How can she tactfully refuse to shake a proffered hand without going into medical detail?

Philip Galanes' advice:
I walked in your wife's wedges, George, and tried avoiding shaking hands myself. It was no picnic: When people extend their hand in friendship, they want it shaken, an pronto!

At first, I kept my hands in my pockets and smiled extra big in lieu of shaking, which didn't work at all: Still Life with Outstretched Hand. Awkward! Next, I claimed a bum wrist, which led to a silly web of lies about a phony tennis injury, and my friend remembered that I play left-handed and we shake with our right.

So the best I can offer is a generic statement like, "I'm a little under the weather." It's vague and true. And if the would-be shaker is bold enough to inquire further (and many will), just say: "Oh, that's boring. How are you?"

So with apologies to Diana Ross, reaching out to touch somebody's hand isn't the only way to make the world a better place. Let's try a little understanding if they don't reach back.

Read another story about privacy.

Thanks to George Sarnoff for his letter, reprinted here from today's issue of the New York Times.

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