Dr. Joseph Barber
Take a moment to think about your handshake. When was the last time you shook someone’s hand? Why did you do it? Were you standing or sitting? Did the other person have a strong handshake? What impression did they make on you? Now, being very honest, rate your average handshake on a scale of 1-5 on the following criteria:
- Firmness (with 5 being very firm)
- Moistness (with 5 being very dry)
- Confidence (with 5 being very confident)
How did you score? Some of you probably know you have a firm handshake because you have given this a lot of thought, but for those of you who haven’t thought about it, or who generally get creeped out by the prospect of touching another person dirty, sweaty hands, you might find it much harder to rank yourself across these categories. Now, in terms of moistness, this will generally be dependent on the situation and the environment. A handshake in the middle of summer just before a really important job interview is likely to be the perfect storm of moistness. Nervousness and moistness go hand-in-hand (you see what I did there!). In terms of confidence, this is really a combination of several variables: the confident thrusting forth of your hand to greet someone, the length and firmness of the shake, your body language while giving it, and the way you look into the eyes of your handshaking partner and introduce yourself with a strong tone of voice. Yes, the good, old-fashioned handshake can say a lot about you, and it is critical to get it right in order to make your first impressions count – whether at an interview or just meeting new people at your next conference or as part of your broader networking outreach.
Is a bad handshake such a bad thing? Yes…, and especially when the person whose hand you are shaking has a professionally firm one. A weak handshake automatically sets you apart in their mind, and gives them something negative to associate with you. People make up their minds about a new person they are meeting quickly, and once an initial impression has been made, it can become harder to change this perspective. A weak handshake followed by a great interview is not going to be a disaster, but a weak handshake followed by just a half-decent interview might leave your interviewers seeing your performance in a more negative light. A weak handshake can give people a bias towards seeing other negatives in you. You don’t want that to happen. A strong first impression can help you prevent that.
In the global world of work, it is important to know that different cultures have different ideas about handshakes. If you are an international student in the US, then the firm handshake is something you will need to learn and use, and a firm handshake is appropriate for greeting men and women. A firm handshake communicates a strong, confident personality. Please note, firm does not mean crushing. How firm is firm enough? Well, if you are trying to open a door, you need to grip the door handle firmly enough so that it doesn’t keep slipping out of your hand, right? In fact, you would look fairly foolish trying to open a door with a limp handshake grip. Since door handles are hard metal, there is no benefit to trying to squeeze the life out of them – you’ll just end up hurting yourself. So, the firmness of the grip you use when opening a door might be a good starting point for the firmness of a good handshake. If you still feel confused about the difference between firm and painfully crushing, find a friend or two and practice! Get feedback from them on what is weak, firm, or just too much.
Here is some general advice about implementing a successful handshake:
- Where possible, stand up to shake hands.
- If you are already standing and moving towards people, then you can start the handshaking gesture about five feet from your target.
- Make sure you are facing the person, with good eye contact, and a confident greeting when you reach out – as this will prevent you from standing there with your hand out looking like you are directing traffic while they are still busy talking to someone else.
- Dry hands are ideal. This means that if you are at a networking event or conference, don’t leave the bathroom until every part of your right hand is totally dry after washing them. Everyone has to pee, and so the likelihood that you will meet someone you wanted to chat with somewhere near the bathroom is actually very high. No matter how many times you swear to your handshaking partner that your hands are wet because you just washed them (not a great first impression to have to make this argument), somewhere deep inside their subconscious they will fear the worst!
- As you are engaging hands, Keep your thumb pointing up – don’t try to engage with a palm up or palm down approach.
- Move your hands forward and don’t grip or squeeze until the web of your hand (between the thumb and your first finger) has firmly engaged with the web of your partner’s hand. A strong forward motion helps you to lock your hands together.
- Don’t bring you hand in from the side as if you are slapping someone on the back – this messes everything up!
- The shake should last 2-5 seconds, with 1-3 up and downs, giving you enough time to say your name, listen to their name, and then respond back with their name (e.g., “It is great to meet you, Trevor”). Shake from your elbow; you don’t need to engage your shoulder to do any heavy lifting.
- Maintain eye contact during the shake.
- Finish one introduction and shake before you move onto the next one in a group setting where you are meeting more than one new person.
- Shake at the beginning of a social interaction, and shake at the end. Just make sure that the parting shake is much better than the starting shake if you had any issues with the first one.
Your handshake is easy to improve, and with enough focus on the moment in time when you are meeting new people or reconnecting with people you already know, you will be able to make a good impression on people in your professional network.