Your handshake matters more than you might think: 10 different ways to shake one’s hand

I wrote this article a year ago, but it’s worth reiterating how important a handshake is in your job search, business, and life.

I’m a firm believer that you can tell a lot about person’s character by his handshake. In a recent interview workshop, I told my attendees about my obsession with a good handshake and, as a result, a half  hour conversation ensued.

At the moment I’m talking about the the importance of making a great  first impression. I tell them, “Someone’s handshake tells me many things about a person. If it is firm, the person is trustworthy, open to engagement, warm spirited, confident, and basically someone who I’d allow my daughter to date.” They all laugh.

I get sidetracked and tell them about how my daughter dated a boy who shook my hand for the first time with a limp handshake. I told her soon afterward that her boyfriend better learn how to shake hands if he wants to get anywhere in life. She told me I was being ridiculous.

“If it’s limp,” an attendee speaks out, “the person is suspicious, anti-social; someone I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to date.” Laughter erupts. He has stolen my thunder.

An article on CareerBuilder.com states that a proper handshake makes employers overlook some deficiencies in jobseekers: “Prospective employers said they’re more likely to overlook visible body piercings and tattoos than an ineffective handshake, according to a 2001 survey of human resources professionals.” Though this article is dated, I think a good handshake is still a vital component of the first impression.

About.com, under an article about social disorders, talks about 10 “Bad Handshakes.” They are:

  1. “I am dominant”
  2. “Bone Crusher”
  3. “Limp Fish”
  4. “Just Fingers”
  5. “Cold, Clammy, or Sweaty”
  6. “The Double-Hander”
  7. “The Long Handshake”
  8. “Without Eye Contact”
  9. “The Miss”
  10. “Too Close”

I can relate most to the “Bone Crusher” because I’m an occasional bone crusher. I once shook a woman’s hand with such force that I thought I heard her bones being crushed, or at least shifting. She winced in pain. The handshakes that drive me mad and make me want to take a hot shower are the “Limp Fish” and “Cold, Clammy, or Sweaty.”

I reached out to my LinkedIn family and posted a question about the significance of handshakes, and there were some pretty good responses. One person, wrote, “The handshake is part of the first impression. Not so firm as to cut off my blood circulation and not limp like holding a slice of calf’s liver. And God help us, not sweaty either. So make sure your hands are dry before you extend a handshake.” I love the image of a “slice of calf’s liver.”

On the other hand, a respondent to my question wrote: “I’m interested in the information the person [has] to communicate to me, not peripheral customs like a handshake.” I appreciate his opinion; not everyone places so much stock in a handshake as I do. But I don’t buy it. The “Limp Fish” would send anyone over the edge, regardless of the information.

Wiki.answers.com writes extensively on the subject of the handshake, including the proper position. “Your body should be approximately two cubits (distance from fingertips to elbow) away from the other party. Your shaking arm should be bent so that the elbow forms a 135-degree angle, and the forearm is level with the floor. Your hand should neither be on top, nor underneath the other person’s hand. Both parties’ hands should be straight up-and-down, even with each other. The web of your hand (skin running between the forefinger and the thumb) should meet the web of theirs.”

Okay, some pundits go a bit far with their explanation of a proper handshake. I definitely feel that a person should maintain eye contact while shaking an employer’s or business person’s hand, but keeping her elbow at a 135 degree angle is a bit extreme.

My customers attend my interview workshop to learn the tricks of mastering the interview, but it’s important for them to master the first impression before the interviewer starts asking the difficult question. When I meet someone for the first time, I size them up immediately based on their handshake; but that might just be me.

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15 thoughts on “Your handshake matters more than you might think: 10 different ways to shake one’s hand

  1. wendy gelberg

    Hi, Bob –

    Good article. I’m wondering how you would address the cultural issue that someone raised in one of my own workshops – she noted that in her religious tradition, physical contact between men and women who are not married is not allowed, and she wondered what she should do in an interview situation if a male interviewer extends his hand for a handshake. Her question has stayed with me, because we do put such a strong emphasis on the handshake. Any suggestions for someone in that situation?

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  2. Things Career Related Post author

    Thank you, Wendy. This must be a tough situation for your customer; and if we were to say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” she’d still be conflicted. I would say to her that normally women should not hesitate to shake a man’s or woman’s hand, but in her case she could wait for the interviewer to extend his/her hand.

    The interview is such a difficult event for many people. To add the pressure of a good handshake must put some people over the edge.

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  3. Rebecca Fraser-Thill

    Great research and specifics Bob! You know I have never thought much about handshakes, probably because we use them very little in the academic world (and isn’t that odd? I had actually not considered how infrequently we use a handshake until a student shook my hand at the end of my final exam yesterday). You’re right, though, that handshakes may tell us a lot about a person, even if we don’t register that information on a conscious level. I may need to work on mine…!

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    1. Things Career Related Post author

      Sorry for the late reply, Rebecca. I think the handshake is one of the oldest forms of communications. Without words it can say so much, if done well. What does a quick handshake say? A lingering, soft one? A hard long, motionless one? I think our eyes communicate messages, as well. All forms of body language are important in verbal communications. But I put a lot of stock in the handshake.

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  4. Robert Corrigan (@BobCorrigan1)

    The handshake has always been something that resonates with me. From the bone crushers to the cadavers, handshakes leave a lasting impression. I’ve always presented a firm handshake myself and expect the same in return, but too often I find myself holding a lifeless appendage. When this happens with young people that I know, such as nieces, nephews, friends of the family, I make it a point to suggest (usually through humor) that they put some life into that fish they just handed me. Its a simple gesture that speaks to your own confidence level and also to your level of regard for the person with whom you are shaking hands.

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    1. Things Career Related Post author

      In my mind a misjudgment. Was this for an interview or a business meeting? Think of the rest of the meeting and forgive her for being forward if it went well. This gesture is usually reserved for those you know well…or Bill Clinton.

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