The Art (and Psychology) of the Handshake
A handshake can say a lot of things.
Posted June 10, 2017
The handshake seems to be mostly a male thing, although women in modern cultures have generally adopted it as well.
Some anthropologists surmise that—among other purposes—it serves as a reciprocal, nonverbal affirmation of non-hostility. When two human males are within arm's length of each other, and each encumbers his weapon hand by interlocking it with that of the other, physical aggression is generally contraindicated. The military salute may serve partly the same function, displaying as it does the empty weapon hand.
It's not uncommon to see corporate executives, political leaders, and celebrity figures signal their status by nonverbal variations of the standard polite handshake. These meta-signals might include clasping their counterpart's hand with both of theirs; putting a hand on the other person's arm or shoulder; or holding on to his or her hand for an extra few seconds.
Most monarchies have strict and well-understood rules that come into play when an ordinary mortal shakes hands with the king or queen.
But other signals can often modify the "meaning" of the handshake somewhat, depending on circumstances. One of the many forms of amusement offered to observers of U.S. President Donald Trump is the "power handshake," also known colloquially as the "alpha" handshake.
Trump commonly displays "dominance nonverbals" in dealing with almost everybody he encounters face to face. Being unusually tall, at 6 feet 2 inches, he typically moves into the other person's personal space and towers over them, if possible, requiring them to look upward to meet his gaze, which involves elevating the chin and exposing the throat. The unspoken message is "I'm more important, and I'm more powerful than you are. I'm the one who's in control here."
Combined with his official status as U.S. President, this typically—but not always—puts the other person psychologically "one down," and feeling physically encroached upon.
Another Trump variant of the alpha handshake is the "pull" maneuver, in which he yanks the other person's outstretched hand toward him, with his own hand ending up tangent to his rib cage. This tends to pull the other person off balance, bringing him or her close enough that their intimate-space "bubbles" intersect. This intrusion into personal or intimate space is typically uncomfortable and tension-producing. A downward tug exaggerates the "off balance" effect.
The alpha-shaker sometimes runs into trouble when shaking hands with a counterpart who's taller, physically stronger, or both. James Comey, former Director of the FBI, stands 6 feet 8 inches high, and is not easy to overshadow.
Similarly, the viral-news contest of grip strength between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, showed a shakee who was well-prepared for the alpha shake. In their seated encounter, Macron gripped Trump's hand so firmly that the knuckles on both of their hands went white. Macron continued to squeeze Trump's hand for an impolitely long number of seconds, until Trump actually extended his fingers and signaled "uncle."
Then, there's the "bro" handshake, or "broshake," in which the shakers interlock thumbs - sort of the counterpart of the macho gang handshake.
The counter-maneuver to the alpha shake is the "finger trap" shake, perfected by Queen Elizabeth II (note the photo above), but not used as often as it might be. In that maneuver, the shakee seizes the fingertips of the shaker as their hands come together, preventing their palms from meeting. This tends to leave the shaker somewhat startled and feeling peculiar, as if his or her hand were stuck in a cookie jar.
And, of course, there's the "no shake" handshake, as Trump demonstrated during his tense and uncomfortable press interview with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. News people are so devoted to the "final handshake" in situations like these that virtually every political leader knows it's coming and they virtually always agree. In this particularly newsworthy moment, an angry Trump declined to shake with Merkel at the end of the session, and would not even look at her. He just waited for it all to be over.
I can imagine that news fans the world over will start scrutinizing handshakes between important people, trying to intuit what might be going on in their minds, and guessing what kinds of signals they might be sending, consciously and unconsciously.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.