At the forty or so seminars I give yearly, I always ask the same question. "Who here has ever received a bad handshake?" Invariably everyone raises their hands – no surprise there. Perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, “How can so many people get something so simple as a handshake wrong?” What is even more startling is how long we remember those bad handshakes – sometimes we remember for decades. Handshaking, as a form of greeting, has been around in some form as long as humans have existed. The warm, reassuring tactile touch that we as social animals share is essential for social interaction, social harmony, health, survival, and security, as well as for communicating our true feelings.
Somewhere along the line each culture developed different greetings to communicate how we feel about others – from facial rubbing, to kissing, to hugging, to arm clasping, to the handshaking in its many forms that is familiar to us today.
Handshaking is common but not universal. In some cultures, especially around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, a hug, an air kiss, or an abrazo, are favored over a handshake, especially among good friends. In other cultures, especially in Asia, a short bow is the more polite greeting, and in the Middle East the woman’s hand is not touched at all unless it is offered by her – even in business settings.
In some cultures within cultures, such as in the sporting world, greetings have evolved from the traditional handshake to high-fives to fist bumping. Each society and each culture sets the norm, which can change over time, and yet, if any of these is not performed correctly, it leaves negative impressions.
Think about the thousands of people you meet and each time you shake hands; usually, this is the first time two humans touch. You might not think it is significant, until you ask around as I did and you find out, business people, friends, acquaintances, are remembering those “bad” handshakes years on. So in an instant, we are making impressions that have a very long shelf live based on a brief but important handshake.
In the span of a few seconds we lay the foundation for how other perceive and feel about us – and we about them. In an instant really, we are seeing, sensing, observing, and feeling another person. Nothing to scoff at, which is why every culture has greeting rituals – opportunities to see what this person is about, what they represent, and whether they are a threat.
So how that handshake is performed is crucial, which is why so many hands go up when I ask who has received a bad one and why it is usually followed up with comments such as: “it was wet,” “it was creepy,” “Eeeeuw,” or they simulate their hand being crushed or handled daintily by the finger tips. Lets face it, when a handshake is improperly performed, it leaves us with negative feelings about the person who gave us that handshake and it is remembered that way. And of course if that person is a repeat offender, those negative feelings are just further reinforced.
So, why would a bad handshake stay with us for so long? I suspect the answer is multifold and it has to do with evolution and our survival. Consider this. Two strangers meeting on the African savanna, by touching hands together, they demonstrate that they have no weapons – no need to fear each other. By touching hands together properly, chemicals are released in the brain including the bonding chemical oxytocin. Those good feelings help to promote harmony and friendship. Any kind of negativity sensed from the handshake was also important as it would impart information about issues, concerns, or true feelings. Those negative impressions were important because they helped us to formulate a picture of this person we were meeting for the first time.
It makes sense that they would stay with us for a long time; that is how we evolved. Negative emotions associated with a bad handshake stay with us for so long because it is stored in that part of the brain (amygdala / hippocampus) that helps us to assess for danger, the unhealthy, or anything that threatens us or makes us feel bad so we don’t have to learn it over and over. It is this area of the brain that helps us to remember, just from one experience, not to touch the hot stove or eat putrid food again.
When I look on the Internet, there are thousands of examples of bad handshakes. From the most recent, Bill Gates in South Korea shaking hands with one hand in his pocket, to those that think crushing a hand is impressive – yes, it was all the rage when Neanderthals walked the planet.
So the question is how do we get it right and what should we avoid? First we have to keep in mind that handshakes are cultural. If you go to Turkey or the Middle East handshakes may be very gentle – that is a good handshake to them. In Utah you are going to get what is called a Mormon handshake: enthusiastic, vigorous, and prolonged. If you go to Bogota, a handshake may be replaced with an abrazo, especially if you are well liked. The secret to handshaking is to mirror the culture you are in – when in Rome you do as the Romans and you just accept it.
Here in the United States you get all kinds of handshakes because we have immigrant groups from all over the world and this nation spans six time zones from the US Virgin Islands to Hawaii. Handshaking is going to vary along the way and it does, but in business we fairly much have one standard for shaking hands. The hands clasp with equal pressure fingers down or at a slight angle curling around the other person’s hand so that the index finger and the thumb actually point toward each other on the back side of their hand. This is held just long enough for it to be comfortable and socially acceptable but not too long. At the same time, it is always good to remember to mirror the handshake of the person who has the highest status – if they give a strong handshake then that is what you do, conversely if it is gentle and short then that is also what you do.
Not tricky or hard to do, yet some manage to screw it up so lets go over some things you must not do when shaking hands:
Eye Contact: Make sure you are making eye contact with the person with whom you are shaking hands and avoid distractions. I have seen men shaking hands with a corporate manager while the eyes tracked a beautiful woman walking by. Don’t do that - please.
Wet Hands: About 2.8% of the population suffers from hyperhidrosis – wet hands, excessive sweating. Before you shake hands make sure you dry them first. There is nothing wrong with having a handkerchief in you hand as you wait or wiping them on the back of the leg just before you shake hands. If it is really bad, you can Botox the hands and that works very effectively. Incidentally you can also do the armpits if that is a problem.
Dominant Handshaking: Sometime in the 1980’s someone wrote that to establish dominance in a relationship your hand had to be the one on top when shaking hands. The clinical term for this is: crap. Twisting the other person’s hand so that yours is superior or playing hand jujitsu to let the other person know you are in charge is just rubbish. Don’t do it and if someone does it to you just say, “Let’s do it properly this time without the theatrics this time.” The only thing this kind of handshake achieves is it leaves you with a negative impression and makes you wonder just how much of a social aardvark this person seems to be.
Probing Handshake: All the time I hear about or I receive the probing handshake. The probing handshake is where the other person probes you with their index finger pressed against the inside of your wrist. It leaves the most negative of feelings and I have had managers, CEOs, and HR personnel tell me that for them it is the most dreaded handshake. Some have told me they were “revolted” by it and that is a strong word. So, gentlemen (usually done by men) if you erroneously learned this on your own or it is a part of some sort of secret society ritual, either way, knock it off. It is unctuous and no one appreciates it.
Politician’s Handshake: Lastly, never ever, unless it is for your grandmother or grandfather, give a politician’s handshake. That is where you use two hands to cover or cup the other person’s hands. No one likes it, it is too personal, and you have to earn the right to do it. Politicians do it thinking you will like them more – you won’t. If you feel you need to touch more, shake the hand normally and with the other touch the forearm. Otherwise they will post comments like this one left by Maria K. Todd, CEO, of Mercury Healthcare, whose one significant meeting is remembered this way: “I shook hands with Hilary Clinton: two-handed and clammy.” Ouch!
Conclusion: Shaking hands is a simple act that you can get wrong. Follow the social norms of the culture you are visiting and don’t try to be dominant with the handshake. You are being assessed when you touch another hand, doing it properly says a lot about you and how you will be remembered. You are not there to score points you are there to make the other person feel comfortable, to establish psychological comfort.
If you are meeting with a person who gives a very weak handshake, perhaps that is their custom. Don’t grimace and don’t make a face, match their handshake with equal pressure and give thanks you have an opportunity to demonstrate that you have social intelligence and good manners. You never know when that handshake you are executing so politely and perfectly will be long remembered and that hand is extended back to you one day when you need it the most.
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Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. You can follow Joe here in Psychology Today. Copyright © 2013, Joe Navarro.