Shake It Like You Mean It

Ah, the handshake. Such a critical first impression-making gesture, and yet a gesture that goes unperfected in so many people. Until you’re confronted with a truly awkward handshake—you find yourself holding someone else’s limp hand, for example—you may not even realize the power of a good shake. While a great handshake can make you seem wise and powerful, a weak shake can give you an aura of fearfulness or insecurity.

The Grip

The core of the handshake is the grip. How hard should you shake someone else’s hand? Well, there’s a middle ground you need to find, and it lies somewhere between a limp grasp and a bone-crushing one. If you’ve shaken enough hands, you’ve no doubt experienced both ends of the spectrum, and you know that neither is especially pleasant.

The limp shake is a sign of weakness or weak will. Therefore, once you step into the business world, the limp handshake should be left out of your repertoire. How can you tell if your grip is adequate?

First, make sure you’re inserting your hand far enough into the shake. A limp shake often generates from one person attempting to limit her exposure to the other person’s palm; the weak shaker does her best to touch only the other person’s fingers or to lightly touch the inside of the other person’s palm.

If you are concerned about exposing yourself to germs, that’s understandable to a point. However, since a limp shake gives the other person the idea that you’re weak (physically or emotionally), you should try to get over your germ fear and develop a good grip. Just keep your hands—and the germs—away from your face until you’ve had a chance to wash them.

Those Pesky Palms Again

You’ll remember that we talked about the palms as they relate to body language: palms up is a friendly gesture; palms down indicates a closed-off speaker who isn’t open to new ideas.

The general idea applies to the handshake, with one small difference: Someone who offers his hand to you with his palm facing down is telling you that he’s the top dog in the office. This is the kind of move that the president of the company might use when meeting with underlings. When someone offers you his hand in this fashion, it actually forces you to shake in a palm-up position, which is a submissive move. You’re acquiescing to his power.

General Douglas MacArthur was the commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific and later head of the United Nations forces. Suffice it to say he caused plenty of men to tremble in their boots. When President Harry S. Truman fired MacArthur in the 1950s, he shook the general’s hand using a palm-down motion.

So what are the lessons to be learned here? First, unless you’re the boss, don’t offer your hand for shaking with the palm facing downward. Although some people may not know the literal meaning of this motion, most acknowledge that it’s an out-of-the-ordinary move, a way of setting yourself apart from everyone else, a way of saying, “I’m a little better than you are.”

It might not be in your best interest to communicate this so blatantly to your colleagues, who may not necessarily feel that you are better than they are. They’ll start looking for other subtle signs of arrogance in you.

Second, if someone offers you his hand in a palm-down position, it’s all right to offer yours vertically … and wait for him to shake your hand. The funny thing is that some particularly aggressive people will take your hand and try to turn it palm up as they shake it. Go ahead and fight the twist, and don’t feel a bit strange about the wrist wrestling you’re engaging in. You’re simply protecting your own standing.

Is it wrong to offer your hand in a palm-up manner? Not if you’re supremely confident and/or in a position of power to begin with. This is actually seen as something of a humbling move and will most likely make others feel more comfortable in your presence.

If you’re the boss, you don’t necessarily need to offer your hand in the dominating position. Shaking hands in the traditional manner—with both parties’ palms vertical to each other—shows that you respect the other person, no matter what her standing in the company.

The Shake

Now that you’ve got the strength and positioning correct, how long should you hang on to that other hand? What’s considered the appropriate length of time to shake?

The up-and-down motions are called pumps. Three to five pumps are usually adequate. Anything shorter feels too brief in most situations; anything longer feels as though you’re holding the other person’s hand for personal reasons.

Everyone has been in situations where the handshake is either abbreviated or extended, and many times this is because neither person knows how long to shake. Go ahead and take the lead here—give the other person five good shakes and pull back.

Other Shaky Touches

You’ve seen brothers and male friends shake each other’s hands and simultaneously clap each other on the shoulder—obviously, a way of saying, “I’m so glad to see you!” Is this motion reserved for personal meetings? If your boss smacks you on the shoulder, is that a way of saying he really likes you, or is it a way of saying something else entirely?

The shoulder smack, along with the elbow grab, is almost always simply an extension of goodwill. It’s a way of expressing genuine happiness at seeing the other person without moving into hug territory (though sometimes the shoulder clap is a prelude to the hug, especially among male family members or friends).

The one situation where you should give in to the other person’s whims is when you’re shaking hands with your boss. If he has a longer shake than you, just hang back and let him take the lead.

Here’s a subtle move that often follows the handshake and is easy to miss: Let’s say you’re finishing up a meeting with a colleague. You shake hands and as you turn to walk out the door, he walks with you, putting his hand on your shoulder. This is a condescending move, one that suggests that you’re the underling in this situation.

If you work with someone who is prone to the condescending shoulder touch, move out of his range after shaking his hand. When he does this to you, it feeds his own perception that he’s higher up on the ladder than you are, so to speak, which may not mean anything in the real world … but there’s no sense feeding this guy’s ego.

You may not be bothered by the shoulder touch, but you don’t want the other person to start believing that he has some sort of control over you. You want him to know that you’re a force to be reckoned with when push comes to shove. Steering clear of his attempts at intimidation is a great way to get this message through loudly and clearly.

The shoulder smack, along with the elbow grab, is often a sign of familiarity and goodwill.
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