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The Quick Handshake Guide

Fish hands, lady fingers, the bone crusher, the limp noodle, the sweaty palm–whatever you like to call them, there’s all sorts of phrases for a bad handshake (or attempt at a handshake.)  But as funny or awkward as they are, a bad handshake can basically equate to a bad first impression in a job interview.

Don’t think it’s that important?  Varying research has shown that we pass judgments when meeting new people in one tenth of a second up to the first 60 seconds of meeting them.  Similar research shows that hiring managers determine whether or not they’re going to hire someone within this same time frame.

So before you even sit down to answer any questions in an interview, during those first seconds of interaction: a simple greeting, eye contact, and a handshake, the person across from you may have already made up their mind whether or not you should be considered for the job. (But never fear, you can read more about Getting Past First Impressions here.)

Additionally, in yet another research study around the handshake, students were put through mock job interviews with businesspeople as well as meetings with trained handshake raters. Students who received high marks from the handshake raters also were rated the most hirable in the mock interviews with businesspeople.

Maybe it’s time to brush up on what you know about handshakes with our quick handshake guide to make sure you are giving a good one and help boost your first impression in the job interview.

History/Importance

The real origin of the handshake is unknown but there are clues to its use throughout history.  Here’s a few fun facts:

  • In Europe, descriptions of handshaking appear as early as Homer’s writings.
  • Handshaking has been accounted for by cultural anthropologists as occurring independent of European influence in Africa, Native America, Guatemala and Central Asia, just to name a few places.
  • The Egyptian hieroglyph for “to give” is an extended hand, which some believe is the original origin of the handshake.
  • Babylonian kings also confirmed their authority by annually grasping the hand of a statue of their chief god, Marduk.
  • Another belief is that the handshake started when two Arabs met in the dessert attempting to kiss one and other’s hands but not wanting to be disrespected by being kissed and a compromise was made that evolved into the handshake.
  • Most traditional scholars believe the handshake as we know it in present day evolved from a custom of Roman soldiers, who carried weapons in their right wristbands.  They would extend and grasp each other’s weapon hand to check for concealed weapons and as a non-threatening sign of goodwill.
  • A handshake is considered to be a gesture of friendship in many cultures, as well as a symbol of peace and a key part of business deals for thousands of years.
  • The handshake isn’t just a human gesture.  Chimpanzees have also been reported to extend an open hand to distressed subordinates as a sort of calming gesture or to clasp hands overhead as they manually groom each other.

Science

Yes!  There is apparently a science to the perfect handshake, at least according to researchers t the University of Manchester, in northern England.  Professor Geoffrey Beattie, head of psychological sciences, devised an equation taking into account 12 key measures — including eye contact,  vigor, hand temperature, positioning, to name a few — and he and his team unveiled a step-by-step guide to the perfect handshake needed to convey respect and trust to the recipient.

“A good handshake at the start of, for example, an employment interview effects directly the outcome of the interview. They make a judgment about how trustworthy they are, the kind of personality they’ve got, how nervous they are. So we make a whole series of judgments on the basis of it,” states Professor Geoffrey Beattie.

Curious about the equation they devised?  Here it is:

PH = √ (e2 + ve2)(d2) + (cg + dr)2 + π{(4<s>2)(4<p>2)}2 + (vi + t + te)2 + {(4<c>2 )(4<du>2)}2

Need a key?  We have it for you below, although, the average person is probably not going to dissect their handshake to this degree:

(e): eye contact (1=none; 5=direct) — 5
(ve): verbal greeting (1=totally inappropriate; 5=totally appropriate) — 5
(d): Duchenne smile — smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset (1=totally non-Duchenne smile (false smile); 5=totally Duchenne) — 5
(cg): completeness of grip (1=very incomplete; 5=full) — 5
(dr): dryness of hand (1=damp; 5=dry) — 4
(s): strength (1= weak; 5=strong) — 3
(p): position of hand(1=back towards own body; 5=other person’s bodily zone) — 3
(vi): vigor (1=too low/too high; 5=mid) — 3
(t): temperature of hands (1=too cold/too hot; 5=mid) — 3
(te): texture of hands (1=too rough/too smooth; 5=mid) — 3
(c): control (1=low; 5=high) — 3
(du): duration (1= brief; 5=long) — 3

Art

As interesting as the equation is, to most people it’s probably a little daunting to break down and think about in mathematical terms, so we pulled up this ABC News Report video to help break down the art behind the science of the handshake.
Things to note about a handshake:

  • Too hard, and you can come across as domineering or forceful–a handshake should not be a sign of physical strength or intimidation.
  • Too soft, and you may seem weak or noncommittal.
  • You want a moderate firmness to your shake (firm but gentle.)
  • Remember to keep your palm sideways, don’t go under or overhand with your shake.
  • Try to avoid sweaty palms.  If you sweat when stressed or were holding a cold beverage, carry a handkerchief or pocket square to wipe the sweat just prior to the interview, or in worst case, quickly and inconspicuously wipe your palm against your clothing before extending your hand.
  • Shake from your elbow, not your shoulder–you don’t want to jostle your acquaintance.
  • Holding a handshake for more than 3-4 seconds (2-3 pumps) can begin to make people uncomfortable–keep it brief, but solid.
  • Initiate a handshake with an appropriate verbal statement.
  • Maintain eye contact and a natural smile throughout the handshake.
  • Don’t forget to end a meeting with an equally solid handshake, just like you opened with.
  • If the other person is engaged in a conversation, wait to offer your hand in greeting until they are done.
  • Don’t get left hanging by approaching someone from the side, they can’t always see you.
  • Lack of confidence is a key driver behind a bad handshake.  Increase your confidence and your handshake often improves without you consciously doing anything. (Listen to more on this from the BBC)

Some Exceptions to the Rule (this is by no means comprehensive, find out what’s common to your situation)

  •  Women considered to be more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences generally have a firmer handshake and make more favorable impressions than women who seem to be less open and in comparison have less firm handshakes.
  • The opposite is true of men: More open men generally have a slightly less firm handshake and tend to makee a somewhat poorer impression than less open men.
  • In Switzerland, it may be expected to shake a women’s hands first.
  • Austrians shake hands when meeting and this often includes shaking hands with children.
  • In some Middle Eastern countries handshakes aren’t as firm as in North America and Europe.  Be aware that a too firm a grip can be considered as rude.
  • Moroccans also give one kiss on each cheek (to corresponding genders) together with the handshake.
  • In some countries, a variation exists where in lieu of kisses, after the handshake, the palm is placed over the heart.
  • In China, a weak handshake is often preferred and people shaking hands commonly hold on to each other’s hands for an extended period after the initial handshake.
  • In Japan, another country where a weak handshake is preferred (although more global business is slowly changing this perception) it is appropriate to let the Japanese initiate the handshake if you are a visiting foreigner.
  • In South Korea, it is customary for the senior person to initiate the handshake, where it is also preferred to be weak. It is a sign of respect to grasp the right arm with the left hand when shaking hands.
  • The ‘hand hug’ is a type of handshake involving covering the clenched hands with the remaining free hand, creating a sort of “cocoon” and is a favorite among politicians, as it can present them as being warm, friendly, trustworthy and honest.

In Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette (1957; Doubleday), the author writes, “A handshake is as much a part of personality as the way we walk, and although we may modify and improve a poor handshake if someone calls our attention to it, it will still usually be just like us, assured or timid, warm or cool.”

There you have our quick guide to the handshake.  Are you ready to apply what you’ve learned to make a better first impression in the interview?  Or do you still think it’s all a gesture with no weight?

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