In the workplace, a handshake is supposed to be a quick gesture that says, “Hello, I’m here, I’m engaged, I’m assertive, I’m professional.” Yes, those few seconds when you grab another person’s hand and move it vertically for a second or two should convey something about you as a person. Ridiculous? Maybe, but people expect it and that means you’re being judged whether or not you want to be.
You might wonder what the big deal is. After all, a handshake’s a handshake. (Unless you’re the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a lackluster or awkward shake understands why it matters. Even if you think a handshake is a fleeting gesture, you will make a snap judgment about the person’s presentation in that moment. Well, if it’s good, you might not pay much attention. However, if it’s bad, you will definitely take note.
University of Iowa business professor Greg Stewart conducted a study where students were sent into mock job interviews. In the interviews, the students met handshake raters (whose purpose was not revealed to them) and hiring managers. After the interviews, the handshake raters gave the students a score on their shake. Separately, the hiring managers assessed the students’ interview performance. The students who had the best handshake ratings were also seen as the most hirable candidates. Perhaps not a coincidence. As Stewart points out, job seekers are told time and time again how to dress and answer questions. Handshakes are one of the few moments when personality shines through. Unfortunately, all the wrong parts of a personality can shine through.
A good handshake should consist of a firm grip and a few pumps up and down. Maintain eye contact with the other person while you do this. Remember, everything in moderation. Don’t crush the other person’s hand or pull her arm out of socket while you stare into her eyes like a hypnotist. A normal, controlled handshake is perceived as outgoing and personable, which aren’t bad qualities to display in business.
What don’t you want to convey with your handshake? Here’s a quick guide you might want to keep in your pocket for reference before you head to an interview or meeting.
1. “I get it, you’re stronger than me.”
Your hand is not trying to wring all the juice from a lemon, so please don’t attempt to crush every bone in the other person’s hand—it just makes you look like you’re trying to prove yourself.
An overeager shaker can catch the other person by surprise, so by the time the handshake starts, you’ve got one person grabbing on to four fingers. It’s awkward, yes, and painful for the person whose four fingers are being cracked.
3. “Sure, I guess I’ll pretend to care about meeting you.”
Some people liken this shake to a dead fish. It’s limp and apathetic and very awkward for the other person. Don’t give the impression that you’re disinterested—that’s no way to give a greeting.
4. “We’re now bonded together for eternity.”
An eternal handshake usually comes from people who are a little too happy to greet you or who are extremely nervous and forget to let go. You do a few hand pumps…and then some more…and some more…and finally you start to wonder if you’ve just participated in some sort of wedding ceremony.
5. “Bet you didn’t see that one coming!”
Although in most cases we don’t suggest changing who you are just to fit in with the crowd, the handshake is one instance. Most people use their right hands for a shake, and so if you extend your left hand, you end up with a fumbling, awkward encounter that leads to a strange hybrid of a handshake and an old-fashioned Southern Belle’s greeting (charmed, I’m sure). In this one scenario, follow the crowd and use your right hand.
Ultimately, you want people to remember you, not the handshake. Rarely do I remember a good handshake, and even less often do I hear anyone discuss a great handshake. I do remember the bad ones, and I’ve had people ask me if I remember so-and-so because he gave such a strange, awkward shake. In the grand scheme of things, handshakes aren’t the most important part of life. However, in today’s competitive job market, no one wants to get dismissed for something as frivolous as a handshake, so you might as well put your best hand forward.
Edited to add: I just wanted to say that the comments below raised a point that I failed to make in the entry. Specifically, these guidelines are based on the most commonplace American business standards. As with all professional interaction (whether it’s written communication or body language), you should be aware of your audience. Research the customs and practices of people you’re meeting with, particularly if they are not from the U.S. As displayed by the below comments, cultural differences can alter how a handshake is perceived, and that does affect your first impression. You certainly want to make a good impression and you don’t want to offend your audience.