Traditionally a sign of hospitality, trust, gratitude, agreement, congratulations, solidarity, peace, condolences, greeting, and sportsmanship, the handshake remains a gesture for establishing and maintaining a rapport with others.
In the United States, studies have shown that individuals with a strong, firm handshake make a better overall impression than those who do not. Moreover, the gender of participants does not seem to matter. In their study of handshakes and first impressions, William F. Chaplin and his colleagues in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama found that females who offer a firm handshake not only seem to avoid the criticism that’s associated with other forms of self promotion but, in bypassing stereotypes of having a weak handshake, can actually gain an advantage over male applicants in employment contexts. Yet regardless of the implications such research may offer people wanting to make a solid first impression, it’s important to remember that, like all communication, the success of a handshake depends upon the context, purpose, and participants, as well as its actual delivery.
Many, for example, are familiar with problematic handshakes: the vice-like grip; the limp fish; the wet, clammy hand; the just-fingers offer; the two-handed hug; the shake accompanied by either an air kiss or a chest bump. These handshakes may be acceptable in certain circles, but when meeting someone for the first time, or when working in professional contexts, it is vital to consider the ways that the ritual of shaking hands can reinforce, or undermine, a person’s image.
Recognizing that some individuals use a handshake to set the tone for subsequent interactions, the following discussion offers considerations for using this ritual to promote respect, trust, and sincerity between participants.
Adjust the torso. Aiming to establish a connection between people, handshakes are most effective when the two participants focus on each other—if only for a few seconds—yet the angle of the participants’ torsos in relation to one another is one of the fastest ways to identify whether the exchange is of mutual interest.
For example, when torsos are turned toward each other, resulting in parallel shoulders, the participants demonstrate attention to and involvement in the present conversation. If, however, one or both participants turn away, the direction of their torsos (often in conjunction with the direction of their feet) signals where they would prefer to be going, even if they continue looking at one another.
Considering that the angles at which people orient their bodies can indicate their level of interest, you should make sure that your torso is squarely facing the person with whom you are shaking hands and remain equally mindful of when the person may be starting to turn away. In such cases, you could either redirect the conversation to a mutually engaging topic, or professionally bring the discussion to a close.
Upright the thumbs. The thumb’s position and palm’s direction in a handshake are critical for identifying the hierarchy of participants in relationship to one another. For instance, those who enter a handshake with the palm down and the thumb turned toward the left assume a privileged position—a position that is all the more exaggerated by those who “dive” into the handshake with their palm facing the floor, or who otherwise twist their palm down during the actual shake. In contrast, those who approach the handshake with the palm slightly up and the thumb tilted toward the right adopt a more subordinate role. Meanwhile, equals approach the handshake with their thumbs on top and their palm vertical to the floor.
By offering or entering a handshake with your hand upright or slightly tipped to the right to suggest an open and welcoming, rather than submissive discussion, you can prompt a more collaborative exchange.
Similarly you should use only one hand during the connection. To lay the left hand over the clasped, shaking right hands can be intrusive, overly intimate, condescending, or otherwise intimidating. The same goes for touching the other person’s shoulder or arm during a shake. Politicians may use such tactics to suggest congeniality and sincerity, but recognizing that some recipients view these moves as artificial gimmicks to acquire votes can be enough to suggest one hand is sufficient.
Connect at the web. Depending on the culture, a handshake can be a business pro forma or it can be an overly intimate gesture reserved for close family members. As such, if and how people touch hands remains a concern.
For some, the apprehension is shaking hands with those who think strength is a sign of power. While a solid, firm grasp may be acceptable in many contexts, vice-like grips that crush the other person’s hand or fingers are never appropriate. Even so, it can be challenging to identify how much to squeeze someone’s hand during a shake.
Individuals with a lighter grip (for example, elderly individuals, arthritic individuals, people with some disabilities, children), as well as individuals who wear rings are especially vulnerable to an unreasonably powerful hold. Furthermore, those from cultures who consider handshakes with minimal pressure to be a sign of courtesy and refinement may interpret any distinguishable grip as aggressive and rude. On the other hand, overly gentle handshakes can also raise concern—especially for those who associate people’s character with the way they shake hands; in such cases, a softer handshake can suggest inattentiveness, reticence, disinterest, insecurity, passivity, or weakness.
Assuming both participants agree to a palm-to-palm connection, the secret to offering a solid, yet participant-sensitive handshake lies in the place the hands connect.
The most strategic place to join hands is at the “first web space,” the webbing between the index finger and the thumb. By connecting at this point, both participants can comfortably “lean into” a handshake without causing pain.
Wrap, rather than crush fingers. If they engage at the first web space, both parties’ hands should be locked in place, allowing both individuals to gently wrap their fingers around the back of the other person’s hand, thereby completing the grip in a loose, but secure manner. Participants can then gently squeeze the hand—not the fingers—to match the other person’s pressure, reciprocating the exchange.
Pump then release. With hands connected, participants should offer 2–4 quick pumps from the elbow, rather than the wrist, and then release their grip. Some contexts and cultures may evoke a few more pumps or hold the hand a bit longer to signal enthusiasm or to heighten connection, but when one of the participants relaxes the fingers or the entire grip, it’s appropriate to end the shake. To continue holding onto the person’s hand beyond that point can move an otherwise harmless gesture into a less comfortable realm for one or both parties.
In addition to these considerations, the ideal handshake is instantaneous, warm, and dry; therefore, if you’re at a gathering with refreshments, you should aim to hold food and cold, icy beverages in the left hand. That way, you can initiate or reciprocate the gesture with minimal fumbling or hesitation.
Likewise, participants should make eye contact throughout the exchange—depending, of course, on the participants’ culture. In the States, eye contact is a way to establish and maintain trust between individuals; therefore, while it may be unnecessary to lock eye as if participating in staring contest, darting or otherwise averted glances can suggest distraction, nervousness, disinterest, or dishonesty, thereby undermining sincerity during this exchange. Other cultures, however, consider eye contact intrusive and overly familiar. In fact, not looking at someone in the eyes—especially someone with greater status or authority—is considered a sign of respect. Being aware of these variations can help participants accurately interpret the sincerity of the exchange.
Another element that can enhance the delivery and reception of a handshake is making sure that you are standing when you engage in this ritual. Shaking hands when one or both parties are sitting inevitably throws off the posture of the participants and disrupts the fluidity of the encounter. Thus, if either party is unable to stand for the exchange, a polite nod of acknowledgement may be sufficient. A nod is also appropriate when either party’s hands are occupied.
When standing is possible, you should avoid having anything between the two of you (e.g., a desk, a chair, another person) so as not to hit these elements inadvertently. Consequently, if you are seated at your desk when someone comes into your office or otherwise approaches you at your workspace, you should stand and, if possible, walk to the side with the other person and face the individual squarely before offering or accepting to shake hands.
A final note concerns cultural differences. Many of the guidelines offered here are grounded in Western cultural practices in general, and American practices in particular, where shaking hands is socially acceptable for males and females. Yet if the goal of shaking hands is to connect with someone in a way that promotes respect, trust, and sincerity, it’s important to recognize that some cultures may not look favorably upon this gesture. Some cultures, for example, prefer alternative greetings: some cultures use a kiss on one or both cheeks; others bow; some press their noses together; some clap; others bring their hands together and, holding them against their own chest, bow their head; and some simply offer a verbal greeting.
Even cultures that do accommodate handshakes may incorporate practices that Americans may find unconventional. For instance, a culture may have restrictions on who can offer or accept the gesture.
Often originating in the fact that women did not carry weapons, exchange gifts, engage in business transactions, or participate in other forums that incorporated shaking hands, females were not encouraged or allowed to accepted another person’s hand—a custom that many cultures and social circles still adhere to today. Consequently, males who offer their hand to a female may be criticized for violating various protocols. In some contexts, males may respond if a female were to initiate the gesture but here, too, the appropriateness of the exchange depends on the forum and the participants. Some cultural or religious practices prohibit men and women who are not intimately related from having any physical contact.
As females increasingly participate in forums where shaking hands is common practice, and as business becomes more global, handshaking protocols will continue to change. Therefore, by sensitizing yourself to how contexts and participants may interpret this seemingly harmless ritual, you can better prepare to know when, how, and if to offer or accept a handshake in a way that respects both participants.
Working toward Areté…
In the comment space below, share your observations about the ways you greet others, or have been greeted, in different contexts to promote or sustain your professional image.