Handshaking 101

Contrary to what you may think, handshakes are not a modern invention. Tribes of olden times used it. The Romans used it. The Greeks used it. We use it today.

Simply put: the handshake has been there for as long as the human race remembers.

Since this gesture is not going away any time soon, we need to make sure that you understand the various nuances of this hand-pumping gesture. Back in the day, the Romans clasped the forearm whenever they wanted to greet someone.

There was a practical use for this somewhat odd gesture: people routinely checked if the other person was hiding a dagger or blade on his forearm. A single strong shake can help a person determine whether or not the other person is armed or not.

When the aristocracy rose and trade was booming, the handshake was transformed into a gesture that sealed business transactions. People shook hands when an agreement has been reached and goods/money was about to be traded between two or more people.

Some centuries ago, it was generally agreed that the handshake belonged to the male domain. But as the centuries wore on and cultural norms evolved, handshaking became part of the female domain as well. When this shift happened, everyone could shake hands whenever they wanted!

In modern times, the handshake is performed in the following conditions:

  1. When you meet someone new
  2. When you want to greet someone who has just arrived
  3. When someone is about leave, as a way of saying farewell
  4. When you need to greet several new individuals at a social gathering

You may be wondering: what about countries that are not descended from Western civilization? What about the other half of the world – the East?

I’m happy to report that although countries like Japan traditionally use different hand gestures and body movements to greet other people, foreigners can safely use the handshake when greeting and saying goodbye. This simply means that when you use the handshake elsewhere, you will not be committing any cultural faux pas at all.

Who Initiates the Shake?

In a perfect world with no social class, roles and hierarchies, we can all shake hands without fearing any repercussions. But we live in a not-so-ideal world and so we have to deal with all of these extraneous circumstances before we decide to shake hands.

Before you even shake hands with another person, consider first the following questions:

Are you really welcome in the place where you would be shaking hands?

Is the other person truly willing to shake hands with you or is he in a position that he cannot refuse to shake your hands?

Is it proper for me to shake hands first with this person, considering his position and stature?

Power and the Handshake

Handshakes are used to greet and bid people farewell – so they are by nature friendly… Right? Wrong. By nature, handshakes were meant to transmit a person’s stature and positionality within a given context or situation. Although handshakes are still considered friendly (generally), it doesn’t mean that handshakes are always equalizing.

Three types of messages can be transmitted through a handshake:

1. Superiority or dominance

2. Submission to the other person

3. Equality among peers

When a person gives a dominant handshake, the other person will choose to be cautious because you are openly showing authority or power. A powerful handshake will bring people into the defensive.

The submissive handshake on the other hand, will give the impression that you are of weak character and you can be dominated easily by other people. The third handshake (equalizing handshake) gives the other person a reason to trust you because you are neither weak nor strong – but an equal nevertheless.

Dominance

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The dominating handshake

A dominant handshake is characterized by the lead hand facing down on the other hand. You must come in from the left if you want to quickly establish a dominant handshake.

Firmly clasp the other person’s hand and shake. By shaking hands first and by placing your hand directly above the other person’s open palm, you are communicating dominance and authority. You are also communicating that it is your desire to take over the dialog, meeting, etc.

According to an independent research of over three hundred established executives in the United States, eighty-three percent of people who have a high position within a company or business choose to shake hands this way. As for the female respondents, thirty one percent still choose the dominant handshake even if the handshake itself projects masculinity.

In the same study, the researchers also discovered that although the dominant handshake was preferred by some women, a significant percentage of the female respondents chose not to appear dominant.

This was done to preserve the projection of femininity, which is traditionally associated with submissiveness. If the handshake was done in a friendlier setting (i.e. a club or bar), a softer handshake may have been appropriate since men are generally attracted to feminine women (because there are decidedly more dominant women who exhibit some masculine traits).

However, it should be noted that if you are a woman and you want to succeed in something that is business-related, you must use the dominant handshake because it equalizes the playing field for you.

It is not good at all to show people that you can be dominated in a business setting. You must always show that you are just as strong (or stronger) so people will take your words and ideas seriously.

Credibility is also highlighted by women who purposefully avoid clothing that implies that they are simply feminine women. For example, a woman who wishes to sell a big idea to a group of people would most likely fail to impress the bosses if she comes to a meeting in a very skimpy red skirt with matching glittery heels.

In a completely different study from researchers from the University of Alabama, researchers discovered that the dominant handshake was common in people who are generally extroverted (extroverts) while introverted and neurotic individuals (introverts) are more likely to show a more submissive handshake.

Rule of Thumb: Women should appear more dominant in business settings.

Submissiveness

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The handshake of submission

To the untrained eye, the dominant handshake and the submissive variation may look the same. But in reality, there is a world of difference between the two. With dominant handshake, the authoritative person reaches out first, which forces the other person to open his palm to receive the other hand.

The palms, which in ancient times is used to hold, use and conceal weapons, is considered a ‘vulnerable’ body part when it comes to shaking hands. That’s why a person who routinely just receives handshakes from people are more likely to be dominated by stronger personalities.

The submissive handshake allows the other person to clasp and shake the hand firmly. You can say that the hand on the left is submissive because most of the movement is coming from the right.

As we have discussed earlier, it is not enough for a person to base his analysis on the handshake alone. A submissive handshake does not automatically mean that the other person is truly submissive.

For example, a person who inflamed joints (gout) will rarely shake hands first because such individuals usually have sore finger joints. People who use their hands to earn a living would also avoid any hard hand-shaking for fear of damaging their most valuable tool.

And then there is the handshake of equal power. People of stature and individuals who have authority usually end up using an equalizing handshake. An equalizing handshake happens when both individuals try to dominate each other through the handshake. When two people try to perform the dominant handshake, the equalizing handshake manifests.

The equalizing handshake can be described as rigid and strong, because both individuals are trying to gain the upper hand. This handshake also tight, for the same reason.

When an equalizing handshake is made, both individuals become at ease with each other. Respect is immediately established because each would feel that the other is of equal stature and therefore, deserves mutual respect.

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