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For many decades now, and in most western cultures in particular, we have greeted each other with a simple handshake. But has all of this changed? Has the pandemic affected the way we greet one another every day? His touching each other become a thing of the past, or will we continue to greet each other with a simple handshake as a way of connecting with one another?

Of course, handshakes are not the only form of greeting we can use, but they still remain in many parts of the world the most popular way of offering a greeting to someone. In this short article we will examine what a handshake really is, how we can make the most of a handshake and whether we are likely to see the end of this form of greeting anytime soon.

The benefits of a physical greeting – what a simple handshake can tell you

When we shake hands with another person, we exchange information. The firmness of the handshake, the enthusiasm with which it is offered, the position of the hand, the perspiration levels and the exchange of other chemicals both consciously and subconsciously tell us something about the other person. Research has shown that people rely on this kind of information to make initial judgments of others (Bernieri and Petty, 2011). This research also demonstrates that people who greet others with a handshake generally make more accurate judgments about the personality of the person they are greeting.

More broadly, having the opportunity to greet someone in person and in a way that is engaging can affect your entire relationship with that person. So, is this something that you can learn to get better at? It is certainly something that many body language experts talk about, including at the Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro, where it is a topic of discussion around including what you can see and the importance of these kinds of interactions and how to best use touch in interacting with others.

What does a handshake tell you?

So, what can a handshake tell you about someone else and what does it project about you? If it is done well, it can project a sense of warmth and comfort. It can help another person to be more likely to trust and engage with you. If it is done poorly, however, it can generator emotions of discomfort, fear or anxiety, anger and distrust.

So what kind of a handshake do you give others? Is it a strong or firm handshake, or a weak handshake in terms of grip strength? Do you have the palm of your hand facing up or down? Do you staying close to the other person or do you give some distance and reach out? How long do you shake hands for? Do you use an energetic motion or a small motion?  What do you do once you have shaken hands? Let’s explore some of these topics together.

What makes a good handshake? – How to shake hands well

Like any kind of greeting or body language, handshakes will be culturally specific, and the best handshakes take both culture and individual preferences into consideration. Generally speaking, however, a good formula for approaching any handshake is as follows:

  1. Approach someone and extend your hand in greeting, but don’t rush upon them or get too close. Wait for them to respond in kind and give them plenty of warning that this is your intention. Make sure your other hand is not in your pocket – if it is it may send a signal that you are less engaged and interested in the other person.
  2. Offer your hand in an upright position, or slightly open. Do not come in strongly with your palm down in order to dominate someone, unless it is your intention to deliberately make someone feel uncomfortable – which in almost every case is a very poor choice of actions.
  3. Once they have reciprocated by bringing up their hand, hold their hand firmly, adjusting the strength of your grip to match theirs. Try and keep your hand upright, in an equal position to your counterpart’s hand.
  4. Shake your hand deliberately up and down three or four times, again in accordance with local customs. Do not do this too enthusiastically – it is not a test of your vitality. Additionally, do not grip their hand with your other hand – this can make the other person feel pressured and trapped.
  5. Release your grip and take a small step back or angle to the side, to give your counterpart room and to make them feel comfortable.

These few short steps should give you a positive experience and help you to build trust and rapport with a counterpart.

Men and women and how we interpret handshakes differently

Like body language more generally, our biases and the lens of gender also affects how we interpret the nonverbal signals we are receiving. This also applies to a handshake. Researchers discovered that when women use a firm handshake, they are more likely to be seen as open to new experiences and more confident, while a weaker handshake will provide a less favourable impression for women (Chaplin et al., 2000) – and may play into stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. For men, having a firm handshake did not necessarily increase other’s impressions of their openness to experiences – perhaps because it was expected that in western society men will have a firm handshake, and anything less than that will be interpreted as weakness in a male counterpart.

Of course, it must also be noted that these observations are culturally specific. If you were to shake hands in Asia or the Middle East, you would find that a much weaker handshake would typically be normal and you need to adjust for these circumstances, rather than make a judgement about someone because of your own cultural ignorance. In some cultures, it is also taboo for a man to shake the hand of a woman and you should be sensitive to these cultural differences.

What do you do if someone does not want to shake hands?

First and foremost, go prepared and understand the cultural norms of anyone you are meeting with. If someone with whom you are meeting with will not want to shake your hand on cultural or religious grounds, respect their wishes. If you are unsure, for example are meeting a mixed gender group from a Middle Eastern country, then shake the hand of those who are the same sex but wait to be invited to shake the hand of someone who is of the opposite sex.

If you do raise a hand and it is not matched for cultural reasons, do not take offense. Simply lower your hand and greet them with a favourable verbal greeting, without feeling awkward or embarrassed. Someone from a different culture will almost always much prefer to not make a scene and to be treated with respect and engage in a greeting that still makes them feel welcome and appreciated, while both of you are able to save face.

This same principle can apply if someone doesn’t want to shake your hand due to health concerns as they are wanting to maintain social distancing. Again, respect other’s wishes and simply greet them with a verbal welcome or make sure hand sanitiser is available if you know this is going to be a particular issue.

Alternatives to the handshake

There are of course many alternatives to the handshake and in different parts of the world other gestures and greetings will have preference over a handshake. In Latin America, for example the abrazo, or short embrace or hug, is very commonplace. In Europe, a kiss on each cheek is a common greeting. Other examples are a high-five gesture or a fist pump greeting. The list of greetings can be endless. Always remember that the purpose of any greeting is to establish rapport through touch and a common understanding. With this in mind always consider which greeting might you best use to achieve this outcome in any engagement.

So, are we likely to see the handshake disappear because of COVID-19?

This is a question I am often asked. What effect with the pandemic have on the simple handshake? My answer to this is that the handshake has developed over hundreds of years and is unlikely to disappear overnight because of a pandemic. Now this is not to say that the pandemic will not have a lasting effect on many of our social, cultural and business practises, including more people working from home and acceptance of video-teleconferencing for day-to-day business, but our fundamental need to connect with others, including through physical touch, will continue to drive behaviors like handshaking. I think that as we increasingly see people become more confident in their own state of health, as infection rates drop and vaccines become more common place, we will increasingly see the levels of social interaction and handshaking increase to pre-pandemic levels.

I also think, however, that increasingly people are losing the ability to greet others well, with confidence and in a way that builds trust and levels of comfort, especially some of the younger generations who spend more time engaging in the virtual world than they do in the real world. Applying the few simple principles I have outlined in this article can help anyone to take those first few steps to establishing rapport and building important relationships with others in a wide range of different contexts. So, who will you greet today?

If you would like to know more about how to read the hands in regards to people’s body language, we also have an article on this.

References

Bernieri, F. & Petty, K. 2011. The Influence of Handshakes on First Impression Accuracy. Social Influence, 6, 78-87.

Chaplin, W. F., Phillips, J. B., Brown, J. D., Clanton, N. R. & Stein, J. L. 2000. Handshaking, gender, personality, and first impressions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79, 110.

About the author

David Stephens is the Program Manager and Senior Mentor at the Body Language Academy by Joe Navarro. He is a world-leading body language expert and mentor’s students and organizations from around the world to help them better understand and apply the principles of nonverbal communication and decision making in everyday life.