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How You Greet Others May Reveal Your Personality

Initial encounters can say a lot about a person.

Key points

  • Appropriate greetings can color the tenor of the interaction and lead to a more positive impression.
  • The sexes differ not so much in the intimacy of their greetings but in the types of greetings they use (e.g., hugs vs. handshakes).
  • Although extraverts tend to engage in more intimate greetings, people can learn and develop their intimate greeting skills.

For years, I’ve heard from career experts and coaches that the quality (e.g., firmness) of your handshake during a job interview makes a big difference in whether or not you get the job. Others believe that a proper and appropriate greeting upon first meeting is crucial to the quality of the interaction and determines if there are going to be future interactions (“that greeting was inappropriate – 'too touchy-feely' or 'what a cold encounter' that was!”).

To answer such questions, we conducted a series of in-depth studies of greetings. We brought people into the laboratory and had them greet strangers (confederates – one male, one female – who were trained to allow the participants to “make the first move” and respond naturally). We asked the participants to role-play certain situations with the confederates. Before the experiment, the participants completed a battery of personality and social skill measures.

We told participants that the other person would either be a close friend or a slight acquaintance, and they would be talking about either an intimate topic (e.g., their parents were contemplating divorce or they would be discussing their love life) or a more causal topic (a favorite TV program). We then videotaped only the greeting portions of the role-played interactions.

The videos were shown to judges who rated the intimacy of the greetings. As expected, there was a significant difference in the intimacy ratings if they were greeting a close friend rather than an acquaintance, with greetings between friends being rated as far more intimate. But, to our surprise, there was no effect for the intimacy of the topic they were supposed to discuss (intimate vs. casual), nor were there any sex differences (sex of interactants was crossed entirely so that there were male-male, female-female, male-female, and female-male greetings). In all likelihood, our judges took into account the sex pairings in their intimacy ratings.

Which Greetings Were Typically Used?

Here we found a sex difference. Mixed-sex pairs tended to hug more, while same-sex pairs tended to shake hands or lightly tap the other person on the shoulder. Many of the greetings did not involve any contact (waving, head nodding, etc.). However, more of the greetings that involved touch occurred if the role-playing partner was identified as a friend rather than an acquaintance.

All in all, these results may square with your own experiences in greeting others or watching greetings. But what about personality?

The results were rather clear. Extraverts tended to engage in more intimate greetings, but Exhibitionistic people (those who like to be “on stage” and the center of attention) and socially skilled and expressive people engaged in the most intimate greetings.

So, what are the implications for formal situations, like greetings in job interviews or when trying to impress someone? Well, to some extent, this jives with what the career coaches are telling people. Appropriate greetings can color the tenor of the interaction and lead to a more positive impression. The strongest relationships were between a person’s social skills and greeting intimacy, which suggests that this can be learned and developed. Pay attention to your greetings with friends or strangers. Observe other greeting, and see what you can learn.

References

Riggio, R.E., Friedman, H.S., & DiMatteo, M.R. (1981). Nonverbal greetings: Effects of the situation and personality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7(4), 682-689.

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