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The Perfect Handshake

A handshake contributes to people's first impression of you. Find out how to get it right.

The Perfect Handshake

The handshake is a curiously Western method of greeting. We approach each other, each extending the right hand forward. If it's gauged correctly, our hands meet at the center of the distance between us, clasp momentarily and pump up and down once or twice, then release at the same time to drop back to our sides. A handshake is nothing more than a greeting - yet entire books have been written about how to interpret and improve your handshake. Over the years, the handshake has been imbued with the same mystique as the Eastern bow. How tightly do you grip the other hand? How long do you hold on? What does it mean if you use both hands? How many times do you pump up and down?

The protocol of the handshake is seen as so important that Japanese companies who are sending businessmen over to do business with Westerners sometimes teach classes in how to shake hands correctly, and women often feel at a disadvantage in business situations with men because they don't feel comfortable shaking hands. Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind when shaking hands with someone.

  1. The 'host' generally makes the first move in offering a handshake. If you're meeting someone on their home turf, they'll usually be the one to extend their hand first. If you've invited someone to meet you at a restaurant or in your office, you should extend your hand to them.
  2. Offer your right hand palm inward to imply a meeting of equals. Your thumb should be extended inward to make it comfortable and easy for your hands to close on each other. If you offer your hand with the palm facing up, you're suggesting that you're submissive to the other person. If your palm is facing down, then you're implying your desire to dominate the interaction.
  3. Close your fingers around the other's hand in a light, firm squeeze. The handshake should not be a test of strength - don't try to mash their hand. Close, squeeze, release.
  4. Pump your hand up and down once or twice, then relax your grip to make it easy to disengage your hands.
  5. Drop your hand back to your side casually rather than jerking it away.
There's been a lot made of how much you can tell about someone by their handshake. The most common 'wisdom' about shaking hands states that:
  • A strong, firm handshake indicates a trustworthy person.
  • A person who squeezes your hand too tightly is aggressive and dominant.
  • A weak handshake suggests a wishy-washy, weak personality.
  • A damp palm means someone is nervous.
  • A limp grip implies disinterest.

Many sociologists who study body language will tell you not to put too much stock in the 'handshake test'. They point out that there are numerous reasons that a person may have a weak or firm grip. A man may not realize his own strength and grip too tightly - or he may be overly aware that he has a strong grip and deliberately try to grip with less force. A surgeon, painter or musician who relies on his hands may have weak handshakes because they are protecting their hands. If you want to garner some meaning from the way a person shakes hands, pay attention to these things instead.

  • Eye contact and a smile tell you that the person is interested and pleased to meet you.
  • Prolonging the handshake without pumping your hand up and down can imply personal interest and intimacy.
  • Shaking your hand vigorously and continuing to pump your arm up and down suggests that the person is overeager - or nervous.
  • Enclosing your hand in both of theirs is generally seen as warm, friendly and dominant - very fatherly.
  • Taking your hand with the right hand while moving the left to guide your elbow is a sign of a dominant personality taking control of the meeting.
  • Drawing your hand - and you - toward themselves as they shake it is a signal of closeness and intimacy.
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