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Are All Those Handshakes at Graduation Really Necessary?

Posted by Peter Post June 25, 2013 07:00 AM

The handshake isn’t just an abstract symbol of greeting or congratulations. It is a real interaction—a moment of physical connection through the actual touching of hands. That contact serves to ever so briefly create a bond between the people shaking hands. It reinforces the message being communicated through speech. That’s why it is so important when we greet each other.

Typically, Americans aren’t touchy-feely people. Studies have shown that we really get uncomfortable if a person stands closer to us than eighteen inches. So it stands to reason that the physical contact of a handshake is a moment in which we impinge on that comfort zone and assure each other of our trust and pleasure at being together.

Besides greetings, handshakes are commonly used when we offer congratulations. One of the most recognized moments of congratulation occurs during graduation ceremonies, only in this case the person doing the congratulating doesn’t do it just once, he or she can be on the hook to shake hundreds if not thousands of hands in a short period of time.

Does the handshake at graduation matter and is it worth the possible discomfort the president or chancellor or whoever will experience after so many handshakes? The LA Times examined the question in a June 19 article Graduations can be a real handful. It seems the congratulatory handshake is still perceived as an important part of the graduation ceremony: “UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal attended seven graduation ceremonies over three days last weekend — shaking about 3,500 hands. He's averaged that many for the last seven years, he said. 'Some years my hand has been sore, one year my shoulder hurt, but I was in pretty good shape this year,' he said. 'I'm honored to do it. Every hand I shook, those students worked hard for four years and accomplished a lot — that's what keeps me going.'"

As you attend graduation ceremonies this year, enjoy the moment that has arrived and is a culmination of years of work. Appreciate the moment when your graduate receives a diploma and shakes hands. And then, as you watch the procession of hundreds or more cross the dais, take a moment to appreciate the person doing the handshaking, too.


Posted by Peter Post June 18, 2013 07:00 AM

NPR recently had a report on The Two-Way, its breaking news feature, that tickled my funny bone. Apparently, the U.S. Navy has come to terms with the computer age, at least as it relates to the use of all upper case letters in message transmittals.

According to James McCarty, the naval messaging program manager at U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, estimates that the new system will cost 10% of the current system—a savings of as much as $15 million a year. "The Navy gains significant cost efficiencies by eliminating the current Defense Message System (DMS) infrastructure and simply using the existing email infrastructure for final delivery." The transition won’t be seamless as the Navy still has a few systems that won’t be able to handle upper/lower case (sentence case) messages. Messages to those systems will automatically be converted to all upper case. But by 2015 that bug will be fixed and all systems will be able to operate in sentence case.

For years the Emily Post Institute has been advising people to write their electronic communications in sentence case. One reason is that it seems like you’re shouting when you write in all upper case. The Navy found that younger recruits considered it rude to write in all caps. But, there’s another equally important reason: All upper case type is simply harder to read and it takes longer to read as well. If you don’t believe me, click here to see a version of this blog in all upper case. So it makes sense that if you want your message to be read quickly and accurately, (and perceived as polite) sentence case is the way to go.

Of course the best part of the Navy’s decision to move to sentence case was the delivery of the actual message:


Bread And Salt: Symbols of Protection and Hospitality

Posted by Peter Post June 11, 2013 07:00 AM

Last Saturday my wife and I had a dinner party. Six people. Very nice. We sat outside. Steak, a couple of salads, some nice wine, good company. It was summer dining to perfection. And that evening got me to thinking about the Game of Thrones, the red wedding, hospitality and what a good host should do for his guests.

The scene was set in the ninth episode of season three of The Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere. At the wedding feast Rob Stark, King of the North, and his band of followers were enjoying a sumptuous feast at Lord Walder Frey’s castle. They were reasonably comfortable even though Rob had had to beg for Lord Frey’s forgiveness for having broken a vow to wed one of his daughters. After all the apologies, Rob and his mother and his compatriots had been offered bread and salt which, according to tradition, put them under the protection of their host. Nothing would happen to them; they were free to enjoy the wedding feast.


Well, they were slaughtered. Interestingly in an interview with, George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire on which the television series is based, explained that not only is the tradition of hospitality and protection offered by salt and bread steeped in history, there are cases when it was violated. Martin cited the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre in Scottish history as two examples of guests being bludgeoned while under the protection of their host.

All this carnage got me thinking. What is a host’s obligation to his guests? Surely, not shooting them full of arrows and ramming swords through their hearts. Seriously, in today’s world, what should the good host do?

  • Greets his guests at the door. We don’t have to offer bread and salt to symbolize protection, but a warm handshake, a friendly hug—these are symbols of welcoming that set the stage for the evening to come.
  • Facilitates conversation. He introduce guests who don’t know each other and is prepared to offer conversation starters. “Mary didn’t you just go to Tuscany? I think John and Joan are planning a trip next spring.”
  • Watches over his guests. He makes sure they are enjoying themselves, but if they enjoy themselves too much, he is prepared to step in and take them home. Safety trumps everything else.
  • Remains calm. Even in the face of a disaster—the grill ran out of gas before the steak was even turned—the good host is poised and adapts to the circumstances. His calmness—and sense of humor—radiates and affects everyone else.
  • Is flexible and gracious. The worst guest faux pas is to arrive with uninvited guests, but the gracious host rolls with the punch and sets an extra place. For his own peace of mind, he calls the miscreant the next day, explains the problem and politely discourages a repeat performance.
  • Is appreciative. He makes sure he says good night to each guest and thanks them for coming. Doing so sets the stage for the next get-together.

And finally, as a guest, if you notice your host start locking the door, run.

Darrell Issa’s Attack on Jay Carney Shifts Focus of the IRS Conversation

Posted by Peter Post June 4, 2013 07:00 AM

One of the key pieces advice the Emily Post Institute offers is how to engage in controversial or difficult conversations. That advice contains one critical point: refrain from making personal comments about the other person. When your responses become personal—for instance “I can’t believe you actually think that” or “You’re lying”—then the conversation leaves the realm of civil discourse and becomes an ad hominem attack.

Over the weekend Congressman Darrell Issa proved the truth of this piece of advice. Here’s what happened:

Issa’s committee has been investigating the IRS and on Sunday, June 2 Issa appeared on CNN’s State of the Union with Cindy Crowley. During a part of the interview focusing on the IRS, Issa (R California) referred to White House press secretary Jay Carney as “their paid liar, their spokesperson”.

Instead of focusing on the IRS issue, Issa deviated and attacked the press secretary personally. What happened next?

The story shifts to Issa’s attack and away from the situation at the IRS. Now the conversation is about: Did the White House press secretary lie? I was watching MSNBC on Monday morning when former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was interviewed about the incident. Gibbs pointed out that the conversation has now side-tracked to what Issa has said about Carney. Then, I saw that reported on Gibbs’ comments and one upped the ante by headlining its story: Robert Gibbs: "Darrell Issa must apologize.” So now the focus isn’t just on Issa’s comment about Carney, it’s about whether Issa will apologize to Carney. It may blow over or it may not unless Issa apologizes. But for at least a couple of days and a couple of news cycles the story is about what Issa called Carney and not about what happened at the IRS.

When you find yourself in an argument or a discussion about a controversial topic, do yourself a favor: Keep your focus on the issue and stay away from personal attacks.

About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. The column is distributed by The New York Times More »

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