The Cohort: That awkward moment when a handshake becomes a hug

July 20, 2017
Category: Business & Work

Welcome back to The Cohort. Our guest writer for one last edition is Liz Plank, a senior correspondent at Vox Media and the co-host of a forthcoming podcast exploring divisions amongst women in America. The Cohort’s founder, Katie Hawkins-Gaar, is back in our next edition and looking forward to returning to The Cohort.

Of all the unexpected train wrecks in 2017, the spike in the number of awkward hugs and handshakes has been surprisingly entertaining. Whether it was witnessing President Donald Trump’s refusal to shake Angela Merkel’s hand at their first meeting or his decision to greet the First Lady of France like a surprisingly well-groomed poodle at an upstate dog show, there’s been no shortage of GIFable moments to make us pause about the ways men comport themselves in professional settings with women. And although we can all appreciate seeing Donald Trump attempt any interactions with another human, we can’t hold him responsible for all of this year’s hug and handshake casualties. Even Marco Rubio recently dove in for a hug when Ivanka Trump was clearly expecting well… I don’t know. Not that. And it’s not like she hasn’t had her fair share of numerous awkward highly televised physical moments with her father.

All of this had me thinking: why are so many men so bad at interacting with women at work?

Since Rebecca Traister had some of the best commentary of Donald Trump’s non-verbal interactions with women during the presidential debates, I asked her a few questions. This interview has been edited for brevity.

What do you think body language reveals about how a man views a woman?

When looking at the interaction between Trump and France’s first lady, there are two things that struck me. Trump looks at her up and down, giving her a full body appraisal, which ties into the content of what he said, which was an evaluation of her form. The other thing that fascinated me is the turn to Macron. The compliment was made to the both of them. As if her weight or her form are a credit to her husband. It’s basic 101 stuff. It’s meeting a human being. It’s a woman in a very professional situation, the spouse of your peer, your very powerful political peer, and the first evaluation that you come up with is how beautiful she is. And that fits with his commentary about the Irish reporter, she has a beautiful smile. He regards women as ornamental. The value is weighed on an aesthetic scale. Obviously it’s not about how smart they are, or what kind of people they are.

Donald Trump is a parody of the wrong way to interact with a woman in the workplace, but have you ever experienced a version of this yourself?

Of course. There is nothing about Donald Trump that is unique. He’s expressing mass attitudes about women’s worth. Look at his VP who won’t even have a meal with a woman. Women do it, too. Women will look you up and down. I’ve had men and women do that. That’s how we are taught to value women. Women’s value is historically based on how they look. That’s one of the ways that, structurally, the decks are stacked against women. Either you don’t fit the aesthetic mold, which tends to be built around white women and difficult to achieve aesthetic evaluative lines, or you do fit it and it’s all that people see regardless of what you write or do or say. Ideally, we are all working to be better than that. In an ideal world, we understand that this is one of the inequalities that determines gender inequity in the world.

Why do you think so many men reach for a hug with women instead of a handshake like Marco Rubio did with Ivanka Trump?

I sometimes reach for a hug rather than a handshake. Often with women or men. I wouldn’t exclusively say it’s a male/female misstep. This is a professional reality. People miss each other as far as how to express professional greetings or intimacies. You meet somebody who you work with, do you hug or do you shake hands? How tight do you hug them? Men and men negotiate that. Women and women negotiate that. People negotiate this. I’m not trying to let Marco Rubio off the hook, but there are real grotesque missteps and there is an added dimension when you’re talking about women and men in the workplace.

But isn’t there a generational component to this? In my experience in the workplace, I see that men tend to hug young women while they shake men’s hands.

Sure, everything is gendered. You can’t take gender out of it. I was once introduced to a very prominent male politician. I was introduced in a closed professional setting where I was standing in the midst of four men being greeted by another man and he was shaking our hands down the line. He shook the hand of the first man and met his eye and said “hello, good to see you.” And he did the same thing for the second man, and then he shook my hand and didn’t say anything to me, he turned to the next man and greeted him. He didn’t even acknowledge me verbally. He just shook my hand and moved his head to the next man. That was a stunning moment for me. Sounds naive and dumb, but I was very much looking forward to meeting him. I was like, “That was awful.”

How did you make sense of it at the time?

I have no idea. I think you can make a lot of guesses about it. And I’m not even sure the person who does it is even conscious of it. Is it that you’re used to doing the eye contact nodding with other men, is it that you register the men in a way that you don’t don’t register the woman in the same way? Then you think, maybe it’s just me. I was the least important of those four people. He didn’t know who I was. He wasn’t interested. You can come up with an over-reading of it. There are a million ways to explain it.

But my fear though is that it gets us to this place where Mike Pence can’t eat dinner with a woman. We can’t make it so impossible. There’s sexism in these things, where men don’t know how to react and it’s sexism, but there are basic social mismatches, like me hugging a fellow feminist [female] writer who is not a hugger, which is not sexism but a mismatch between personal styles with professional. There is awkward shit that happens every single day in life. Everything we do is shaped by gendered assumptions. It’s good to think about it. There’s a way in which this is what we gotta get through to have women and men exist as peers. I’m not saying we shouldn’t analyze it, but we shouldn’t make it rocket science. I’m afraid we’ll get to a place where we just say “see it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Do you think there’s a downside to focussing on these small interactions? Do they become more important than they actually are?

No, the only downside is that we make it seem like it’s just so hard, when it’s not that hard. Close readings of professional interactions like that matter. These professional interactions matter. It matters who plays golf with the president. It matters who plays basketball with President Obama. It matters who Hillary Clinton’s inner circle is. The intimacies are signals and they are ways that people communicate professionally, so of course it’s worth looking at and analyzing. I just don’t want to make it seem like it’s calculus.

Do you have tips for women who are dealing with this issue?

No, because it’s so contextually different. God knows I didn’t say anything [when it happened to me]. I could have been like “why didn’t you say anything to me!” and that would have been awkward. I was thinking about that when I was watching Macron. I loved [the First Lady of Poland] who completely bypassed the handshake. He reached for her and she went right by. It was fantastic.

Luckily, most of the men you will interact with in the workplace are not Donald Trump. But when you do have to interact in tricky situations, here are some helpful tips suggested by Poynter’s Kelly McBride.

  • When uncertain, always go for a handshake. It is always safer than a hug.
  • If you want to be in control of the situation, make eye contact, speak first and send the first physical cue: either a handshake or a hug.
  • If the other person overrides your cue, you have to go with it, but you can shorten it by being still. So if you’ve stuck out your hand and he goes in for the hug, just stay real still for a second, then pull back. If you’ve gone in for a hug and he’s not going for it, then smile and say something funny that only he can hear, like, “Yup, I’m a dork. Can’t ever tell when to hug or shake hands” and then stick your hand out for the shake.
  • Powerful people often stand around waiting for less powerful people to approach them. Whatever. Talk to the people you want to talk to or need to talk to.
  • Some people will snub you. And someday you will inadvertently snub somebody, too. Don’t waste too much energy on it.

And it’s easy to forget all of the ways women have taken the power back in these small yet meaningful interactions. Whether it was Hillary Clinton’s artful avoidance of Donald Trump’s handshake at the last presidential debate (and her hilarious practice video of escaping the Trump hug) or Michelle Obama going in for an assertive handgrip when meeting the Saudi King despite criticism, there are many examples of successful interactions with the opposite sex. Many men have also lead by example. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for instance, received praise when he was repeatedly photographed placing his hand on his heart upon meeting Muslim women to give them the option on whether to shake his hand or not.

It’s proof we can use symbolic non-verbal interactions to communicate respect rather than take swipes at it. Whether it’s a hug, a handshake or a fist pump, these can be opportunities to assert yourself and be clear about your boundaries in professional relationships, regardless of gender.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to fill in here for a few editions, it has been a great honor to be part of this community, and I’m as excited as you all are to have Katie back at the reins. And big thanks to Kelly and Kristen for all guidance along the way! For more feminist rants, come find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and on stay tuned on Vox where I’ll be launching a new videos series and podcast very soon!



Things worth reading:

CNN’s Meredith Artley shared some advice and shine in this Huffington Post piece. (You might recognize a lot of the women she admires.) Leah Beckmann’s “just give it 7 seconds” advice is life-changing. And Poynter’s co-publishing a series on leadership that’s full of good nuggets, like this from Sandy Banisky on confronting male coworkers who are condescending.

The Cohort was founded by Katie Hawkins-Gaar, who’s currently on leave. In the meantime, you can revisit the archives. And don’t forget to be kind to yourselves.