wet fish

The 'wet fish' doesn’t so much shake your hand as allow you to caress his fingers. Photo: iStock

My handshake brings all the boys to the yard. That’s the view of a client of mine who told me she knew I was gay from the moment she met me. By my handshake. “Somewhat soft and girly” were the adjectives she used. So, then, what makes a decent business handshake? And does it really matter?

In her book, Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career, the title of which seems a little too dramatic, Dana May Casperson writes that a handshake “sets the tone” for any “future business association”. 

Handshaking originated in medieval times for one main reason: to prove that neither of the hands was concealing a weapon. 

But who would ever let their business associations be determined by the way someone touches their hand? Surely there are more important factors to consider when deciding how business should be conducted.

Some sociologists believe that handshaking originated in medieval times for one main reason: to prove that neither of the hands was concealing a weapon. These days, it appears the weapon is the insidious behavioural trait of judgement, and we don’t make much of an effort to conceal it.

We even come up with disparaging labels for the various handshakes on offer. The bone crusher: usually a man, will shake your hand aggressively with his on top, asserting control over the relationship. The wet fish doesn’t so much shake your hand as allow you to caress his fingers. The sandwich is the one who’ll grasp your hand with both of his, enveloping you with too much intimacy.

Michigan State University has put together a handy guide, so to speak, to provide some guidance. For example, never shake hands while standing on an angle because it comes across as dishonest. Apparently. And always use your right hand unless it’s “in a cast or a sling”. 

They have plenty of other tips, too. Make eye contact “without staring”. Smile but “don’t overdo it”. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t place too much pressure. “The proper business handshake should be painless to both persons involved”, otherwise you might “cause injury”.

(Believe it or not, they are being serious.)

David Alssema, from Paramount Training, specialises in body language. “Today, many people use a handshake to demonstrate their purpose or level of dominance when meeting people,” he tells me.

Whilst that’s undoubtedly true, it’s still an odd notion. For me, a handshake is simply an opportunity to connect with someone briefly on a physical level. It has nothing to do with making a statement or setting a good first impression.

Alssema adds: “The secret to building rapport … is to match the other person’s behaviour. This includes the type of greeting, the strength of the handshake and also the timeframe the hand is held. Doing this will show an equal relationship.”

But what happens if both people are waiting to figure out each other’s behaviour, strength, and timeframe before embarking on the handshake? Is there a state of limbo during which they both just look at each other ectopically until one of them initiates the aforementioned behaviour, strength and timeframe? Do they just hang in there until someone blinks first?

This is all too complicated. More complicated than it needs to be.

Still, people think it’s important. Research conducted at the University of Iowa in 2008 demonstrated that candidates who were good at shaking hands were deemed to be more employable. The professors concluded that this was because an impressive handshake was linked to extroverted qualities, which tend to be favoured by many bosses.

An alternative is to just give up on the handshake thing. A movement has sprung up advocating such a ban in response to the belief it’s unhygienic to touch the hands of other people without knowing where those hands have been. 

The German city of Würzburg put a stop to the practice a few years ago as a way of limiting the spread of swine flu. And this clever video makes the point that shaking hands spreads more germs than kissing.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with my “somewhat soft and girly” grip.

Do you judge people by their handshake? If so, in what sense?

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