The Art of the Handshake

Within 30 seconds of meeting a person for the first time, the person you meet will decide two very important things about you.  He will decide whether he likes you, and he will decide whether he trusts you.  The scary part is that he will not make these decisions consciously.  These decisions will be based on intuition, or ‘gut’ instinct, and  they will be created primarily by your body language.  One of the areas of body language that has a powerful impact on how you will be perceived in these crucial early moments is the way you shake hands.

There are three basic styles of handshake that most people use:   There is what I will call the classic grip, where your hand is perpendicular to the floor and facing the other person’s hand;  There is the palm down grip, where your hand is angled so that your palm faces  somewhat  toward the floor, and you grasp the other person’s hand from above;  And there is the palm up grip, where your palm faces more toward the sky, and you grasp the person’s hand from below.    Within each of these styles is room for many variations.  For example, you may encounter somebody shaking your hand with a two-handed variation of the palm-down grip:  their right hand grasps from above, while their left hand grasps from below.  I sometimes call this version the “Used Car Salesman’s Grip.”  You’ll find it used in situations where people are trying to dominate you or give you a ‘hard-sell.’  The palm-up equivalent of this, in which the right hands grasps from below while the left hand grasps from above is one you will often see used to console people who are stricken with grief.  I’ll get into the meanings of these various styles of handshakes in a minute.  For now, the important thing to remember is that each variation creates a different impression in the mind of the person you are greeting.

I doubt anybody knows for certain how the handshake evolved as a form of greeting.  Probably it had something to do with demonstrating that you were not carrying a weapon and posed no threat.  I can say for sure, however, that the handshake provides a perfect opportunity to size the other person up.  It gives you an immediate sense of their confidence, strength, whether they seem friendly or threatening, even whether they will be difficult to deal with or a pushover.    In general the best impression you can make will show you to be confident and approachable.  You will be perceived as neither overly dominant, nor overly submissive.  The key variables you can use to create this impression are the angle of your hand and the strength of your grasp.

The palm down grip is very dominating.  It becomes even more so in its two handed form.  The only time you would want to use this is if you are being greeted by somebody who is clearly trying to dominate you.  In this case your handshake lets them know you can’t be easily pushed around.

The palm down grip is submissive.   There are situations where it can be calming, for example when consoling somebody, but I can think of very few other situations where it would be desirable to use it.  In most cases it will stand as an open invitation for people to victimize you.

The classic grip is the most neutral, and the one that conveys the most openness.  With this grip you are perceived as an equal, which contributes to being seen as likeable.

The ideal strength of your grip depends upon whose hand you’re shaking.   My advice is to try to equal the pressure being applied by the other person.  Also, take stock of your natural strength.  If you are very strong, you may want to get into the habit of using a lighter grip.  If you are very weak, it may be a good idea to do some grip exercises to build up your power.

When it comes to creating a positive impression, it’s usually body language we think about the least that has the strongest impact.  This is particularly true of the hand shake.   Its power also comes from the fact that it’s one of the first pieces of body language we use when meeting a person.   Research shows that the impressions made in those first few seconds tend to last the longest.  In fact, they’re so powerful that they become benchmark by which all your future behavior is judged.  So spend some time thinking about your own handshake.  Does it create the positive impression you want, or does it make you seem too dominant or too submissive?  A little practice is all it will take to create a positive first impression every time.

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