Of all the kinds of greetings, I love handshakes the most. A great handshake can convey your warmth and strength. It can show the other person that you are supportive and trustworthy. A great handshake sticks with me–even if I only met the person who gave it once.
Neuroscientists confirm a good handshake makes a lasting impression
Whether we’re networking for business or meeting someone at a social function for the first time, rendering a proper handshake is a great way to make a first impression.
In ancient times, the handshake was a way for people to show that they were unarmed.1 Just like today, a handshake conveyed a willingness on the part of both parties to have a safe and productive conversation.
In business, we shake hands all the time. Unlike many body language cues that we analyze when we meet someone for the first time, the handshake involves physical contact. The way that you shake hands with someone, and the way that you reciprocate, communicates volumes about the interactions to follow.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that a proper handshake has the power to promote positivity between people engaging in the behavior as well as observers.2 A confident handshake increases a person’s interest in the interaction, reduces negative associations, and communicates on a deeper level than a verbal exchange.3
The worst handshakes I received
We’ve been making deals and solidifying agreements with handshakes for centuries, but that doesn’t mean that we always get it right. Handshake etiquette is rarely formally taught, but most of us can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one.
I distinctly remember shaking hands with a nervous gentleman at a conference. His palm was clammy and cold, and his hand flopped like a dead fish. Without saying a word, I could tell that he was uneasy about the situation.
On the opposite end of the handshake spectrum, my father’s coworker once shook my hand with such force that I thought he might actually crush the tiny bones in my hand. From the context, I knew that he was just a strong personality asserting himself, but in other contexts this could be seen as a show of force.
Handshakes are not always friendly gestures. In some cases, they are power plays in which an aggressive grip serves as a way to manipulate another person into listening or submitting.
Initiating a handshake makes people feel that you’re confident
The initiator of the gesture demonstrates confidence. Normally, the person with more power will initiate the handshake. If you wish to show respect to the person you are meeting, you may wish to wait for them to begin the motion.
When you are at a job interview or you are about to engage in a negotiation, you can let others know that you are a confident person by extending your hand first. For an audience that is more conservative or one which the individual is of much higher status than you, it’s better to wait to show that person respect.
Mimic the other person’s body language
In most cases, the gesture is meant to promote positive feelings, but it can also be used as a form of social posturing. During political meetings especially, one party will attempt to show their dominance over another by using an aggressive or controlling handshake.
The handshake between U.S. President, Donald Trump and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is a great example of a handshake being used as a power play.
Handshake between Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau.
Donald Trump is well known for his unusual manner of shaking hands, and recipients have different ways of responding to the situation.4 In the case of the Trump and Trudeau handshake, Trump began by placing his hand on Trudeau’s shoulder. Trudeau mirrored this action, which is proper handshake etiquette.
The handshake didn’t end there, though. Trump’s signature handshake involves jerking the other party toward him. When Trump pulled Trudeau toward him, he resisted with the hand that rested on Trump’s shoulder. Trudeau mimicked the body language up until it became too domineering, at which point he stood his ground. Trudeau gained international respect by handling a potentially awkward moment with grace and maintaining a balance of power in the exchange.
Offer a trustworthy greeting using the double-handed method
There are many nuanced ways to shake hands, but if you want to show that you’re trustworthy, give a two-handed handshake.
This maneuver isn’t appropriate for every situation. If you are meeting someone for the first time, a double-hander can seem too intimate. After you’ve had some time to form an emotional bond with the person, you can use this technique.
This two-handed approach says, “I’m trustworthy,” because it doubles the amount of physical contact that you have with the other person. On a more primitive level, extending both hands shows the other person that you can’t hide any weapons and there’s no hidden danger in your gesture.
Former First Lady, Michelle Obama shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth II. Mrs. Obama is using the two-handed shake method, which conveys warmth and trust. Michelle leans forward slightly to accommodate their height difference and show that she is committed to the gesture.
Stand to the left to look more powerful
So much of our body language comes down to our physical placement in a space. If you wish to look more powerful in front of a group of people or during a photo opportunity, stand to the left side.
The person on the left will always be perceived as more dominant than the person on the right. When you stand to the left, it is easier for you take the upper hand in the handshake. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should assert that power, but the opportunity is there for you. The person on the left almost always looks like they’re in control of the gesture.
This shot of Brad Pitt shaking hands with former Secretary of State John Kerry shows how easily the person on the left could assert too much control over then handshake. Pitt’s hand is in the dominant position, and if he wished to express his power, he could easily do so.
During this meeting between then-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George W. Bush, former President of the United States, the governor is shown on the left even though the president outranks him. The body language of this handshake indicates mutual respect.
Make your palm vertical if you want to make both of you equal
Even though the handshake is a brief interaction, each person can pass a great deal of information to the other through it. It’s important to pay attention to the small details so that the other person can read your intent.
For example, to ensure that the two-handed gesture conveys equality and respect for the other person, be sure that you keep both palms in a vertical position.
When one person’s palm faces downward in a handshake, it means that the person has the upper hand and is taking control. The upward facing palm is submissive in this exchange. The person with the downward-facing hand can push the submissive hand down even more if the person is trying to assert dominance. When both palms remain vertical, it sends the message that you are both on equal ground.
Change the pressure to accommodate the other person
Be firm and assertive with the amount of pressure that you use, but avoid gripping too hard. If the other person’s grip seems weaker than yours, decrease how firmly you grasp that hand. When the opposite happens, increase your grip strength and pressure so that you are not perceived as weak.
This doesn’t mean that you have to replace your strong handshake for a weak one, or vice versa, but if the grip strengths remain unequal, it can tell the other person a lot about you. Do your best to match the level of pressure that you receive.
A good handshake sets the stage
This silent form of communication can tell another person a lot about your motives and intentions. Practicing good handshake etiquette can initiate positive relationships that live well beyond the few seconds in which the exchange takes place. An excellent handshake can leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.
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