The Perfect Handshake

It’s Critical to Your Career!

Your job interview, prospective client, seat on a board or membership in an organization can be won or lost on the strength of your handshake. It can put you over the top or sink your chances. While this seemingly routine and innocuous little nicety lasts only a few seconds, it will be remembered forever.

Studies have been done that reveal how the memory of someone’s handshake can linger and even override other impressions that we have of that person. Here’s an especially interesting article on the subject that appeared in Scientific American.

Your handshake establishes your in-the-flesh image in the mind of the person with whom you are shaking hands, sets the tone for his or her perception of you, and is difficult to impossible to undo. If you’re lucky, a poor handshake might be offset over time by your other actions and achievements; that is, if you get the chance. More often, however, a poor handshake will linger in one’s memory and you may never get an opportunity to reverse the negative impression left by a weak or inept handshake. Conversely, a properly firm and engaging handshake will establish you as a confident, polished, trustworthy professional; that’s the mood you want to set and how you wish to be remembered. Therefore, whether you are a man or a women, to achieve career success, your handshake is something you need to get right.

How did this custom come about? According to some historical accounts, shaking hands dates back to the volatile Middle Ages. Upon greeting someone, a man would extend his hand to show that there was no weapon in it, or that a dagger was not hidden up his sleeve. The other man would then extend his hand to show that he also was unarmed. Hence, a handshake signified that a man wanted to talk, not fight. However, according to this Wikipedia article, handshaking was customary even further back in history.

Today, shaking hands has evolved as a friendly greeting in both social and professional settings. Etiquette requires that you shake hands whenever you are introduced to someone or greet an acquaintance or business associate, at the conclusion of negotiations and many other occasions. If someone extends his hand to you, you are expected to shake it; not to extend your own hand in response is considered to be a serious professional and social blunder.

Practice Makes Perfect

A firm, warm, dry handshake says you are confident, smart and in control; a limp, tentative or clammy handshake says you are nervous, slow and unsure of yourself. Follow these steps to achieve the perfect handshake:

    1. Grasp the other person’s right hand with your warm, dry right hand so that the web between your index finger and thumb is engaged with the other person’s web. Hold the hand firmly, but don’t squeeze too hard (if you cause pain, you’ll not be remembered fondly!) Conversely, your grasp should never be weak, wimpy or damp.
    1. Pump each other’s hand twice. Only your forearm should be moving; don’t move your entire arm. Make two quick, firm pumps of the other person’s hand, keeping in mind that you have hold of someone’s hand, not a water pump.
    1. Release the other hand. Sometimes you or the other person might hold onto each other’s hand for a second or two after you’ve stopped while you keep talking. This is fine, and an especially warm and friendly gesture; however, holding on too long is likely to make the other person uncomfortable.

And, just as you drill yourself on math concepts, the periodic table, history dates, state and country capitols and vocabulary and grammar rules, practicing your handshake regularly and often with friends and family members will help you to master the perfect technique.

Handshake Accompaniments

  • Smile – Unless the occasion for which you are shaking hands is a somber one, you should smile at the person whose hand you’re shaking, to make your greeting warm, welcoming and encouraging.
  • Make Eye Contact – Along with a genuine smile, making eye contact as you shake hands will draw the other person to you emotionally and solidify the connection you are trying to make.
  • Stand, always – The only excuses for not standing when being introduced to or greeting someone are if you are permanently or temporarily disabled, or in a position that does not allow you to rise such as being seated at a banquette table in a restaurant; in the latter situation you should half rise to show that you understand the protocol.
  • Say Something – When shaking hands, you should say something to complete the handshaking ritual, such as, “I’m very glad to meet you, Ms. Jones,” “it’s my pleasure, Mr.  Smith,” or merely, “an honor, sir/madam.”

When You Should Not Shake Hands

You should refrain from initiating a handshake to those who:

  • hold higher social, professional or organization statuses, such as your school superintendent, college president or CEO of your company or organization or any of their senior staff members, such as the principal, vice presidents and department heads; doing so might be construed as forward or usurping authority. It’s best to wait for the person of higher status to initiate the handshake. This rule includes interviewers, hiring managers, senior managers, elected officials, clergy, and so forth.
  • observe cultural or religious customs and beliefs that prohibit shaking hands altogether or with certain individuals. Although you might not agree with such values, it’s important to show respect.  Should you make a mistake and offer your hand, upon learning of the other’s customs simply apologize sincerely and graciously and, if appropriate smile, say, “please forgive me; I didn’t understand.”
  • are struggling with packages or otherwise would physically have difficulty returning your handshake.
  • seem hesitant because they are elderly or infirm and shaking hands would cause them discomfort, pain or embarrassment.

Shaking Hands with the Disabled

With U.S. troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, you may run into situations where a person you are meeting is missing one or both arms.  Remember that all disabled people have the same feelings and desires as you and I, and should be treated with respect and consideration of both their physical and emotional circumstances. Sometimes, disabled people will have a prosthesis that can or cannot grasp your outstretched hand. Often, the disabled will initiate a handshake with their good hands; it doesn’t matter if he or she extends the good left hand and grasps your left or right hand, just go with the flow and respond in a smooth and low-key manner. Avoid staring at the location of the injury, missing limp or prosthesis, or asking how the injury occurred. If it seems right at the time, you may ask, “may I shake your hand?” This advice is based on my own experiences with a disabled colleague and a recent conversation on the topic with some very knowledgeable LinkedIn group members.

Your handshake says volumes about you, a fact that is summarized beautifully by this quote that has been attributed to Helen Keller upon meeting Mark Twain: “I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake.”

Until next time,


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