The Power of a Good Handshake

For a majority of the world’s business personnel, the accepted practice of greeting someone in a professional setting is the ubiquitous handshake. In some Eastern cultures, a formal bow or a Namaste is still the norm; however, in the majority of business settings the handshake reigns supreme.  As such, it takes on an elevated meaning in making a positive first impression on business acquaintances. 

Historically speaking, the handshake dates back to the 5th century BC in ancient Greece. A handshake was the physical act of distinguishing friend from foe by demonstrating that the hand held no weapons. Medieval Europeans built upon this tradition by adding an up and down shake to dislodge any hidden weapons in the sleeve. 

You’ve probably learned along the way that body language not only plays an important role in life but also in the workplace.  Our body language sets the precedent for how our interactions with others go.  Arms folded signal defensiveness whereas a slight nod and smile in support of what someone is saying can do wonders to encourage people to speak more freely. The handshake, a form of body language, expresses willingness for equality and balance. It can also set the tone for building trust and perception of your abilities. Whereas a lazy handshake can make you appear disinterested in the other party, a firm handshake with maintained eye contact and a warm smile shows enthusiasm, openness and interest in the other person. It’s amazing how much a handshake can affect someone’s opinion of you on a subliminal level.  

The ideal business handshake strides the fine line between a forceful death grip and a limp “dead fish” hand. The limp hand may set a negative physical impression of a person which may also lead to a negative perception of one’s abilities as a professional. On the other hand, a vice-grip handshake may be viewed as overly aggressive. Your approach to shaking hands imparts subtle non-verbal cues of your professional acumen, personality and business style.

Here are a few simple tips to help you execute this very important business ritual:

  1. Eye contact
    Stand and make eye contact with the other person. If you’re sitting, stand up and acknowledge the person. It cannot be overstated: Make eye contact.
  2. Positioning
    Keep your body squared off to the other person and face him or her fully.
  3. The Actual Handshake
    Your handshake should be firm but not bone-crushing. Don’t offer a limp hand either. Make palm to palm contact and ensure that the web of your hand touches the web of the other person’s hand. Maintain pleasant eye contact throughout without staring. You may pump your hand in and up-and-down motion a couple of times.
  4. The Greeting
    Acknowledge the person by name if you already know them. If it is your first time meeting them, offer a brief greeting and introduce yourself before and during the handshake. Repeat the person’s name after they introduce themselves. This way you can not only learn the correct pronunciation of the person’s name, but also impress your social awareness upon the other person. A genuine smile added here shows your interest in the other person and is encouraged.

Of course, one size doesn’t always fit all; in some countries a firm handshake can be viewed as a sign of aggression, while in other cultures social protocol determines who initiates the handshake. Do brush up on your cultural cues if you’re unsure. (See related: Here and here)

There has been some confusion in popular culture about how women’s handshakes.  In the past men used a gentler handshake with women, and women were led to believe that a firm handshake was too masculine. However, today the limp handshake universally makes the “limp” person come across as uninterested and lacking confidence and commitment. Research shows that women with a firm handshake make a more favorable impression and are seen as more confident and assertive. A study published by the University of Alabama in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women with firmer handshakes made a more favorable impression. The study further posited that giving a firm handshake may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women.

Second chances in business, as in life, are rare occurrences. It is our first impressions that people remember. A handshake is the first act we undertake when meeting someone new. Therefore it is imperative that you make this act memorable for the other party. A good strong handshake sets the tone and perception of your personality and abilities. It transmits confidence, openness and trust to the other person. Now go out there and shake someone’s hand!