The Power of a Handshake

20 years ago, in my starving artist phase, I would moonlight as a roadie for a stage illusionist.  One of my jobs was setting up his pyrotechnic display.   It always made me nervous, and not just because I constantly risked blowing myself up.  You see, when you use pyrotechnics, you have to notify the local fire department.  This means you will get a visit from the fire marshal, and there was always a possibility he might ask to see your pyrotechnics licence.   I didn’t have one.  My boss, the illusionist, did, and I always assumed that I would be covered under it, but I also had some doubts. 

One day I was setting up a display for a corporate event.  I was alone at this point, because my boss had decided he could come to the venue closer to showtime.  Some movement caught my attention, and I looked up to see a man walking very purposefully down the aisle.   As he approached, I could see that he was in a uniform, and that he was accompanied by the theater manager, who did not look comfortable at all.    When he stopped before me, he asked “why didn’t anybody tell me there was going to be a pyro display?”   Yes, he was the fire marshal.  And he was ticked! 

All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind.  Why hadn’t he been notified?  Would he ask to see my licence?  And if he did, would I get a big fine?  I decided that I should try to look as confident as possible, so I stood up, introduced myself, and shook his hand in a firm, no-nonsense manner.  Or so I thought.  What I did was give him a two-handed handshake.  I grasped his right hand with my right hand, and I grasped his forearm with my left. 

Sadly for me, I didn’t know much about body language in those days.  What I gave him was what I now call a “used car salesman handshake.”   It’s a very physically intrusive way to shake a person’s hand.  Everybody has a sense of personal boundary, and this two-handed handshake immediately punctures that.  It should never be used on somebody you don’t already know well, and probably not on too many you do well.  What it does, essentially, is force a level of intimacy that you’ve not yet earned.   The impression it creates is that you’re trying to pull something over on them. 

I discovered the power of a handshake the hard way.  As soon as I tried the two-handed version, the fire marshal looked at me suspiciously and said, “anybody who shakes hands like that is somebody I don’t trust!”  Eventually I did get out of that day without a fine, and without being shut down, but it took a persuading to win him over. 

Often it’s the little things that make the biggest difference in how others perceive us.  This is particularly true when it comes to body language, since non-verbal behaviors often affect us on an unconscious level.    Often, people will decide whether they like us or trust us and not ever really know why they arrive at their conclusions.   This is part of the reason I’ve been so fascinated with body language.   It’s really the perfect discipline for control freaks like me!



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