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The Secret Handshake

People make their first assessment of you within the first few seconds of having contact. Therefore, your facial expression and body language play a far more important role than what you manage to say during that initial conversation. While there may not seem to be much of a secret to handshakes, they are actually a crucial part of making that first impression. Therefore, it is wise to become aware of what makes a ‘good’ handshake, and in what situations you should not extend a friendly palm.

The general rules to a handshake are:

  • Before extending your hand, smile and introduce yourself. Only once you have made verbal contact (i.e. begun speaking), should you reach out for a handshake.
  • Lock hands with the person between the thumb and the forefinger, offering them your whole hand, and not just your fingers, to shake.
  • Grasp the hand firmly, and pump it only two or three times and then stop and let it go. If you hold on for too long or continue to shake it out of nervousness, the other person is likely to feel uncomfortable. Although you want your grip to be firm, you definitely do not want it to be so hard that they feel threatened or experience pain (keep this in mind especially when shaking the hand of a lady).
  • Never ever keep your hand limp and lifeless when someone is trying to shake it. This is unpleasant for them and makes you appear weak. Likewise, if you receive a limp hand, continue to hold and shake it firmly, while being carefully not to hurt the person.
  • When shaking their hand, you do not want to do it in a jerky, jarring way. The best way to prevent this is to shake from the elbow, rather than from the shoulder. Experiment on a friend to see the different this makes to the severity of your handshake.
  • Avoid grasping the other person’s hand with both of yours. Use only your right hand, particularly in business contexts. Using two hands implies affection for the person, which may come across as ‘put on’ if you do not sincerely feel that way about them (or if it is inappropriate to feel that way).
  • If the person whose hand you are shaking has sweaty, damp palms, avoid the temptation to wipe your hand immediately afterwards. This is insensitive and offensive. Rather leave their field of vision and do it discreetly.
  • If you feel that you have done something wrong in your handshake, move on quickly, changing the subject or complimenting the person sincerely, so that they are distracted.

Shaking hands is appropriate in almost any business-oriented situation. However, you may want to avoid shaking hands in the following contexts:

  • If you are greeting someone that is of a significantly higher rank than yours. Shaking hands is a friendly gesture and you should let them extend the privilege to you first, not assuming that they would welcome it.
  • If there is an awkward moment as you meet this new person and you feel like the only way to break it is to extend your hand. You absolutely must be saying something (preferably introducing yourself) when extending your hand.
  • If you do not intend speaking to the person after your handshake.
  • If the person’s right hand / arm is injured or clearly laden, in which case shaking your hand would be painful or very inconvenient for them.
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