Body Language Expert | Motivational Speaker | Keynote Speaker | Communication Expert | Presentation & Speaking Skills Trainer | One-On-One Coach

The Secret of the Perfect Handshake

By Body Language Expert Patti Wood

The ritual of the handshake is powerful and rich with symbolic significance. It’s something you do without even thinking about it, and it profoundly affects your relationships: you walk up to another person and shake hands. If you know the rules, you give a firm three-to-five pump handshake in greeting while standing approximately sixteen inches from the person. In business you greet someone in this manner and then step back to a minimum of two-and-a-half feet distance, with no other touch in the critical first four minutes of the interaction. A handshake allows you to form a first impression of that person or, if you have met them before, to form an impression of them for that interaction.

In Western cultures, handshaking is used to greet another person and “seal” a contract or promise. The handshake is also the quickest, most effective way to establish rapport with another person. Research in the United States shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you get with a handshake.

Why do you think we shake hands? We shake hands to show that we hold no weapon. It is thought to have started with the Roman arm clasp. One man would reach out his right hand, his weapon hand, and clasp just below the elbow of the man he was greeting. With this greeting neither person could wield a weapon easily. Medieval knights created the shaking part of the handshake because they knew that other knights hid daggers up in their sleeves and that the shaking would dislodge any hidden weapons. So basically handshakes are weapons checks: Are you packing any weapons? Let me check. Nope. Okay, let’s talk.

This interpretation would also explain why, until quite recently, it was chiefly males who practiced handshaking. For men a strong grip signifies male bonding through a silent display of competitive power. But up until recently most men, especially in the South, were taught to wait for the woman to extend her hand because to extend his hand would be making the assumption she was carrying a weapon and that would be a great insult. It used to be that offering one’s hand to a woman would carry the outrageous implication that the “gentler sex" could also be dangerous.

Things are different now. With the exception of women in Kentucky and Tennessee, women across the country prefer men to extend their hand and give them a handshake. The majority say that when a man does not offer his hand, it makes her feel she is not respected or seen as an equal.

Although the handshake is rapidly becoming an internationally accepted business greeting, Americans shake hands more often than people of other cultures. The handshake can serve as an important verb in your body language vocabulary. Few things can create such an effective first impression as an easily given, gracious handshake. But unless your father took you aside and gave you tips as a teenager, most likely no one told you the ideal way to shake hands. Based on my research, here is the best way to execute the 'perfect handshake' by American standards.

The Perfect Handshake  

  • Rise, if seated. That rule used to apply to men only; now women should rise as well. If you remain seated when someone is introduced to you, the communication of personal indifference is unmistakable, not to mention offensive. The only approved exception to rising to shake hands is if you are eating. If that is the case, you can wait to shake hands until after you are done.
  • Walk up to the person with confidence. Keep your head level and your hands at your side. Be sure to keep your hands out of your pockets. Research indicates that we don't trust people with hands in their pockets. Make sure your right hand is free to shake hands. Always shift any purses, briefcases, papers, beverages or cell phones to your left hand before you begin the greeting.
  • Smile briefly. Don't overdo it. If you smile too long or too much, you are perceived as submissive. An overextended smile can create negative impressions, such as “overeager,” “easily manipulated” or “not intelligent.” Women need to take special care not to overextend the smile as it can reduce personal power and can even be misinterpreted as a sexual come on.
  • Make eye contact. There is a substantial amount of research showing that good eye contact increases feelings of trust. Don't stare, but don't look at your shoes. Making eye contact as you approach lets the person know you want to interact. Men need to extend the eye contact for at least three seconds without blinking or looking away as they shake hands. Women need to be careful of holding eye contact for more than three to five seconds at a time with men they have not met before. Men may perceive extended eye contact as a sexual advance.
  • Face the person heart-to-heart. When you stand at an angle and don’t face the person squarely, you are sending the symbolic message that you are not being straight and open. You may look as if you need to protect yourself, you do not like the other person, or you feel the need to reduce the intimacy or the duration of the interaction.
  • If you have a problem with clammy hands, don’t forget to wipe them on your handkerchief or tissue before you shake hands. And at social functions, carry any iced drinks in your left hand, so your right hand will not be cold and damp when a handshake is called for.
  • Reach out your right hand and arm across your body to your right. The forcefulness and confidence of the move lets the other person know you not only want to shake hands, you look forward to it.
  • Make sure the arm goes fully outward as an arm held closely to the body indicates timidity and lack of confidence.
  • Make sure your hand is straight up with the thumb on top. The thumb on top is symbolic; it indicates you want equality in your interaction. No one person will dominate. You will respect the other person and expect him or her to respect you.
  • Stretch out and open your hand between the thumb and the first finger so that you slide your hand easily into the web of the other person's hand. Make sure the rest of your fingers are together with your palm flat rather than cupped so your palm can touch their palm...
  • Make palm-to-palm contact. Open palms symbolically show a desire to be open and honest in your interactions; not giving a person contact with your palm in a handshake is read subliminally as a lack of openness and honesty. It’s why we hate a wimpy or limp handshake. It makes the other person nervous and he or she may wonder what you are hiding.
  • Once full contact is made, wrap your fingers around the other person’s, put your thumb down gently, lock thumbs and squeeze the hand firmly. The pressure should be equal or at the most slightly more than the pressure you are given. Never grip the other’s hand in a contest of macho handshaking to see who can hold the hardest or longest. You want to have a firm handshake but the rule is to match the pressure or add no more than two degrees of pressure.

Not surprisingly recent academic research indicates that a firm handshake that shows strength and vigor with appropriate eye contact length and completeness of grip is related to a favorable first impression.

The handshake is a potent element in communicating your personality and intent. It speaks volumes about who you really are and what you actually think. So smile and reach out your hand for the perfect handshake.

Copyright © 2007 Patti Wood All Rights Reserved