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I work in an open space office at the moment with ~30 people on the same floor. I tend to arrive early and leave late thus flocks of arriving and leaving people are zooming past me both in the morning and in the evening, each considers it customary to stop by and shake my hand, regardless if I put on my headphones or not.

Not that I am socially awkward (I have some trouble remembering all the faces and names though), but getting pulled out of "the flow" by turning my head and shaking a hand each time is detrimental for my concentration, which is regrettably not one of my stronger sides. I would much rather shake hands on my own with a [much smaller] pool of local folks.

I work in Eastern Europe (Ukraine).

Is there a "known" silver bullet to stop this custom without being known as an odd guy? I searched The Workplace and considered the options for related questions, however none address this particular situation.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Mar 1 at 18:44
  • Tangentially related: Brain research about processing of being touched with fRMI. – Peter A. Schneider Mar 2 at 10:09
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    Is this common at your workplace or does this only happen for you? Maybe this is important to find a solution. I imagine the company is quite unproductive if everyone did this. – puck Mar 3 at 10:11
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    Take off your headphones, open your eyes as wide as you can, smile as big as you can, lock eyes and extend the handshakes to awkward lengths. They will probably only shake your hand once after you start doing that. There is a slight risk this might label you as an odd guy, though. – HelloGoodbye Mar 4 at 10:16
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Get a different desk.

It sounds like a big part of your problem is that you are in the natural flow of traffic between the entrance and a significant number of desks. This is also hampering your work. Talk with your supervisor and see if you can't get your desk moved to a more out-of-the-way corner. If they aren't passing by you, they won't shake your hand by default, and it's not something you're obviously doing, so no one is likely to see it as odd.

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    Ahhh very true, I sit right in the middle of the room, aisle seat. – Eugene A Feb 28 at 19:29
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    @EugeneA: And if someone inquires why you changed your desk, you can just say it's distracting when people are coming in... no need to mention handshakes. – Mehrdad Mar 2 at 23:12
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You know this is going to happen and it appears to be important to the culture in your office.

Plan your day so you are doing easily interruptible work (for example, answering emails) at that time.

Don't try to "get in the flow" when you know you will be interrupted

Getting along well with your coworkers is at least as important to your career as writing good code.

You don't need to encourage extended conversation, but it's important that you are thought of as "one of us".

Don't hide.

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    This answer is sad but true. – Koray Tugay Feb 28 at 19:28
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    This is really awful advice. Your coworkers should be respectful of your time. Unless everyone comes in within a 5 minute window, there will be a significant portion of your day lost to people wanting to say hi. – krillgar Feb 28 at 19:58
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    This clearly answers the question "Is there a way to avoid this" with the correct answer: No, so plan around it. This isn't a problem of coworkers not respecting the OP, it's frankly that the OP is not respecting their coworkers. Not making the small amount of effort to perform the standard greeting of the culture you're in because you're "in the zone" is, to put it simply, impolite. – CullenJ Feb 28 at 21:30
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    @krillgar It's not his time, but his employers time, as long as OP is paid. And apparently employer made it a custom and culture to shake hands. – Mołot Feb 28 at 23:16
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    @krillgar, "Your coworkers should be respectful of your time". That read as "Too busy to say hello". It's always hard to understand someone else culture. In my last 3 company (from 40 to 200 employees), almost all the C suit will handshake every body. The respect here either you come at time and roam the office to handshake people, or you come early and get handshaked. And it's not limited to work, you may find YouTube video of US people saying that their worst nightmare is going to an Eu bar with friends and having to handshake/kiss and repeat their name to everybody. – user95634 Mar 1 at 7:56
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You could take a comical approach and attach a plastic hand near your desk with a sign for people to shake, they will probably laugh and get the message.

  • ... but only assuming you will laugh with them. ^_~ – vaxquis Mar 4 at 15:47
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Easiest option to avoid upsetting others is to find a quiet room for 30 or 40 minutes at the start, and end, of the day so you are just not there when they stream by.

Any other suggestion, such as "pretend a sports injury" etc etc don't work for extended periods...

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    @DarrelHoffman perhaps you should make this an answer - at least it could have been better placed than just a comment against my answer... – Solar Mike Feb 28 at 20:54
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    @DarrelHoffman Feigning a medical condition might be difficult if he has been shaking hands up until now. You can bet some (perhaps many) people will ask, "What happened?" Further, if someone told me they can't shake my hand because of a "medical condition" and wouldn't divulge what that condition was, I'd take care to avoid any contact with them at all. – Headblender Feb 28 at 21:17
  • I thought about making that an actual answer, but I'm not sure it's enough of a good idea to seriously suggest it. It was mainly in response to the "pretend a sports injury" comment you made. – Darrel Hoffman Feb 28 at 21:57
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    @SolarMike Hmmm. Believe it or not, handshaking is often very ingrained in the culture and not an empty/background gesture. Many co-workers will notice the maneuver after at most three-four days and comment on it. They really keep in their head the list of people and daily handshakes. I know I did. Thus this would very likely fail the "I don't want to be the odd guy" requirement. – kubanczyk Feb 28 at 22:20
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    @DarrelHoffman I'm not sure about this Stack, but most sites on Stack Exchange network forbids answering in comment especially because of ideas that are not good. Answers can be downvoted, comments cannot, and avoiding community moderation is harmful to the site. – Mołot Feb 28 at 23:20
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I have been through the same and I understand that social conventions sometimes are inconvenient (or undesired when involving physical contact like birthday hugs).

In my experience, most people will eventually get used to your preferences. I would explain to each one your reasons and politely ask to say hi in a less distracting way, for example, just waving. Some will be offended but there is nothing wrong with wanting your focus to remain intact while you work and while you respectfully draw limits, there should be no problem. Also, talking to everyone individually, you can explain without hurting their feelings, you give the message of being important enough to have "the talk", and give them a chance to process it.

I would avoid just not answering the shake from one day to another because they will probably be confused by the behavioural change and will assume the reason ("he's becoming weird", "what did I do?"), and potentially damage your social life there (not receiving after-office activities invitation, eating alone, etc). Leave the least space to assumptions and you should be fine.

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I also worked in similar companies in the past (it was Kazakhstan), where we supposed to shake hands (only men). My solution for this was insisting on waving (works when you arrive later), and sooner or later people would start to pick up this method because it's probably problematic to everyone involved.

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Resist the handshake, you should not be forced to give out handshakes as if they were high fives in a 90s teenage TV show. Do as user Jayson said you should do, or start doing your own thing. Point at them and tell them "you're the man" (if applicable). Or start presenting the left hand instead of the right hand. Some people will get the hint, some will just stop coming at your desk, not wanting to be bothered by "Eugene A's latest handshake prank". A few will stick around, and that's when you start having fun with them.

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    Or my ideas: wave at them. Or salute them. (Just put your hand on your eyebrow, then quickly push your hand into the air. Then, to confirm that you've completed your portion, look away from them, back at the computer screen.) Since the core of my ideas is similar to the core of this answer, I just upvoted this answer and added my ideas in a comment. – TOOGAM Mar 1 at 4:59
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    I'm afraid it doesn't prevent loosing the flow. – Ister Mar 1 at 8:53
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tl;dr: Use pomodoros as a real-life 'busy status' indicator.


Most people do not interrupt out of malice, or even lack of consideration. They do it to be sociable, because they like you and want to interact. As such, stopping them from doing so is probably going to pass a bad message. On the other hand, given they do it because they like you, if they are made aware from visible cues that their interruption will cause you grief at a particular point you're trying to focus, then they will be more likely to wait until you look less busy next time.

So to an extent, this is also your failure in that you accommodate such interruptions without signifying that they were inappropriately timed.

As a possible solution, I recommend applying the pomodorro technique, both in terms of ensuring your focus, but also as a strong visible social cue that an interruption would be inappropriate. If you're not familiar with it, basically you set a VISIBLE (or even somewhat audible!) timer for 25 minute slots (with 5-minute breaks), during which you're expected to have ABSOLUTE focus on your task. If an interruption occurs, you postpone its action for when the pomodoro period is over, unless it's impossible to avoid, in which case the pomodoro is reset.

Therefore, say Jim comes and says hello, while you've got a pomodorro running. You go, "Ah, Jim! One sec." You save everything and close the coding window you were working on, take your headphones off, visibly reset the pomodorro, and rise to greet. If he asks what's that you say exactly what it is. You don't have to be passive aggressive, but explain that it is there to ensure uninterrupted focus, but, oh well it's ok, but, actually if you don't mind, if you see me doing a pomodorro next time please don't interrupt because it means I'm trying to focus ... but if I'm not doing one please do come and say hi".

The pomodorro then becomes a real-life "Status: Busy" icon for your coworkers, and it not ticking becomes a real-life "Available for Chat" icon :p

Of course, there will always be the odd toxic co-worker who pretends not to get it and interrupts anyway, but presumably your question was more general. But in that case, you should be assertive and straightforward about it: "please don't interrupt when I'm doing a pomoddoro, it's severely disrupting my thoughts and takes me forever to get back to that point".

Also, if you're going to use a pomodoro, make sure it reflects reality. If you've got one running but you're clearly playing solitaire, pretty soon it will cease to be a valid marker to your coworkers and they'll ignore it. Not to mention, sticking to pomodorros can be a great productivity and time management tool, so you should stick to it anyway.

  • tl;dr if you want your cringe rating in the office to skyrocket, buy a timer; people will stop approaching you, because they will consider you off-putting enough to leave you alone. Hell, I've done that with smelly socks, garlic bread and unwashed teeth, it works wonders... chuckle – vaxquis Mar 4 at 0:44
  • @vaxquis no. that's just being passive-aggressive, and is in fact the exact opposite of what I'm suggesting. The key here is to assertively and openly state your needs, under that understanding that you trust and value your colleagues enough to believe they will respect it, while also helping them by providing a visual cue. This is a gesture of mutual respect. Conversely, being passive-aggressive, avoidance strategies, not stating your needs but acting in ways that would force your colleagues to adjust their behaviour without you having to explicitly ask them to, are signs of disrespect. – Tasos Papastylianou Mar 4 at 13:58
  • you ain't aware of the fact that if the cultural norm included handshaking, your so-called "assertiveness" will be looked upon as just simple trolling? Timer strategies are intended for your own use, not to regulate social behaviour. Unless you're the team leader, you're not in a position to tell other people whether they can approach you and "grab you out of your zone", or not. Believe me or not - what you're proposing (using "status: busy") is actually frowned upon by most people in most countries. Read workplace.stackexchange.com/a/130525/97792 and ponder upon it... – vaxquis Mar 4 at 15:40
  • BTW: "assertiveness" is a pseudopsychology buzzword more often than not. When you're a worker in an office, you're being paid to do what other people expect of you, not to assert yourself. Most people I know would get either upset or offended if you told them that "you're busy" - because, by that, you're implying they are slacking off...Using a timer would be considered even more offensive, while being cringy and passive-aggressive at the same time. Treating coworkers as retarded kids ("... while also helping them by providing a visual cue") seldom works; this ain't a gesture of respect. – vaxquis Mar 4 at 15:43
  • @vaxquis. I'm happy to define clearly what I mean by assertive. It means communicating your needs and wants clearly (i.e. not being passive-aggressive), without trying to impose them (i.e. not being aggressive), but also without sacrificing them just to avoid conflict (i.e. not being passive). To me this is a sign of mutual respect. You are 100% completely correct in what you say provided you interpret assertiveness as "being an asshole". I'm just saying it's the opposite. So yes, don't be an asshole. Just be assertive in expressing yourself clearly while also being sociable and team friendly. – Tasos Papastylianou Mar 5 at 9:56

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