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A 'handy' guide: what your shake says about you


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

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

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?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

58 comments so far

  • Just don't dislocate my shoulder or rattle my eyeballs from their sockets, and I shan't judge you by the way you shake hands.

    Date and time
    September 07, 2012, 9:57AM
    • Hate the 'Dead Fish' feels creepy and weak (especially when the person has cold sweaty hands). To me the 'Dead Fish' is a give away that the person has little confidence. A weak handshake also says to me the person lacks sincerity, they are not 'pleased to meet you'.
      What do others think?
      I personally have a strong handshake that is on the level. I do no t try to out-strength the other person or to turn their hand flat trying to dominate them. My handshake is a 'what you see is what you get' type of hand shake. Then again I am also that type of person.

      Hugo a GoGo
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 10:00AM
      • I find the "dead fish" hand shake extremely unnerving and will pull back from it as quickly as possible.
        Strangely I have got the "dead fish" from some people who have made it quite far in business... for the life of me I can't figure out how because they instantly lose respect with me and most people I know.
        My other pet hate is people who offer you their hand horizontally and palm down. These people clearly think they are superior and want to put you in your place straight away (by having the "upper hand").
        I have been known to grab the side of their hand and shake it or just stand there presenting my hand in the normal fashion and simply wait until they play the game and shake hands properly.

        Date and time
        September 07, 2012, 2:35PM
      • Some cultures do not shake hands with any force at all. Egyptians will barely touch you, with a limp hand, for example. Thats just the way they do it.

        Date and time
        September 09, 2012, 7:35AM
    • If (in a business situation) a guy shakes your hand aggressively with his on top, it usually means he's incredibly insecure.

      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 10:15AM
      • You could be right about that. A few years back i was working for a local council in the top end and a new guy started work there, who was sort of my boss. When i first met him and shook his hand, he twisted mine round so his was on top and sort of twisted mine downwards. I thought "what a wanker" and had a laugh about it with some of my workmates, who'd had the same experience with him. But it turned out he was a really good bloke and was great to work with. He was probably the only person there that i missed when i left. It was a shame he felt he had to pull that silly hand shake at the start but!

        Will Kemp
        Date and time
        September 07, 2012, 6:46PM
    • The handshake is everything. I INSTANTLY know how the other person feels in relation to me, and, how they feel about themselves.

      The handshake is old school but mega effective way of sorting out what's going on when you 1st meet someone.

      I love the handshake!

      keep it warm and firm ...
      ... not crushing, limp or creepy
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 10:24AM
      • I agree wholeheartedly with that. The handshake is very important to me. When I was 15 I was told by my dad the importance of a firm (but not agressive) handshake when meeting people for the first time and to look the other person in the eye. It creates that first impression. I may be taking it all a bit too far but if I get weak handshake from a guy, my first impressions are that he is insincere and untrustworthy. Ultimately those impressions have proven to be correct.

        Date and time
        September 07, 2012, 12:28PM
      • I think you might be misleading yourself and setting yourself up to misinterprete.

        A handshake obviously means a lot to you; but that doesn't necessarily mean it means anything to the other person (negative, positive or otherwise).

        For me a handshake is merely an acknowledgement of the other person; nothing more, nothing less.

        Interpreting somebody's 'weak' or 'cold fish' handshake as a sign of lacking confidence (as you state in a later comment) could be a complete misinterpretation. Perhaps they don't regard you as anybody worth taking seriously and therefore don't feel the handshake is worth taking seriously; i.e. signalling they don't respect you.

        I think a handshake is a dated tool personally, and don't care one way or the other how someone shakes. Their words, later body language and actions will determine their character

        Date and time
        September 07, 2012, 1:06PM
      • @ALS123 I agree. The handshake is the equivalent of lifting the reciever to answer the phone, it doesnt add to the conversation or give you better understanding of a person. Even if you do read into the handshake the "wet fish" probably doesnt care, they're too busy thinking about the business youre going to talk about, or lunch, or pretty much anything other than their hand grip.
        Why do people take it so seriously? Eye contact and mannerisms are a better give away because theyre hard to control. The way a person grasps your hand can easily be manipulated to give you the impression they want to you have. Its not the best indicator of who they actually are - see Will Kemp's comment

        Date and time
        September 10, 2012, 11:29AM

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