Donald Trump Knows The Art of The Deal—
But Does He Know The Art of the Handshake?
By Olivia Fox Cabane
A Fortune 500 CEO once said that when he had to choose between two candidates with similar qualifications, he gave the position to the candidate with the better handshake.
Is his reaction extreme? Perhaps, but on the other hand, consider the following study. A quarter was left in the coin return of a public telephone. If a stranger took the coin after using the phone, one of the research students would walk up and ask whether the person had seen the quarter.
Alas for human nature—60% of the people lied, claiming they had never seen the money. In the next series of experiments, however, when the students introduced themselves with a handshake before asking about the quarter, less than 15% of the people approached lied. The study concluded that the handshake had improved the quality of the interaction, thereby producing “a higher degree of intimacy and trust within a matter of seconds.”
Though it may seem inconsequential, a handshake is in fact a serious step in intimacy. In the same manner that animals define and defend their territories, we humans develop a sense of “ownership” for the space around us. This territory, which is but a few inches, is nonetheless a sort of “personal space” bubble, and we react strongly if it is invaded.
The size of the bubble varies by culture and by density of population. For instance, the American bubble is far bigger than its French counterpart. The German requirement for personal space is notoriously large, particularly compared to Latin countries, and even more so in the Middle East, where a proverb states one must “smell the breath” of a man to know if he is to be trusted.
No matter how large or small the bubble may be, in every case, the physical contact involved in a handshake requires that this barrier be suspended, if only for a moment. In the manner of a drawbridge brought down to allow a knight to cross a moat and enter the castle, lowering the personal space barriers to shake hands is an act of trust, and so it creates trust. In fact, a handshake can be seen as the first step in a relationship.
The first commonly known depiction of a handshake was found in Egyptian frescoes, around 2800 B.C. Since then, across cultures, across hemispheres, the handshake has been surprisingly similar—always with the right hand. This last point is what explains the handshake’s entire raison d’être. Think about it—why the right? In primal terms—which is pretty much how we still operate—the right hand and arm were the ones used for weapons. Certain sociologists postulate that this historical fact may be the reason that the handshake has conventionally been more of a male tradition: Women were simply less likely to carry weapons.
In Roman times, the handshake was in fact an arm clasp. One man would reach out his weapon hand and clasp just below the elbow of the other. This gesture afforded a better opportunity to feel for daggers hidden in one’s opponent’s sleeves. Medieval knights took precautions one step further, by adding a shake to the clasp. In doing so, they sought to dislodge any hidden weapons the feel-up could’ve missed.
Dead Fish and Knuckle Crunchers
There are, unfortunately, as many types of bad handshakes as there are people. So rather than irk you with an exhaustive list, I’ll mention just a few of the worst offenders. Let’s start with the well-known knuckle cruncher. Yes, it may be a demonstration of machismo, but it could also be the result of a person being genuinely unaware of his (or her) strength. Alternatively, it might be the result of misguided teachings—some women have been taught that the tougher their shake, the more seriously they will be taken. Hence, they conclude that you should crush your handshake partner’s palm as if your life depended on it.
A strong contender for the best-known baddie is the dead fish, where a limp, lifeless hand is extended and just barely shaken. It gets even worse when the hand is cold and clammy. This contender is, perhaps, the worst of all delinquents. The cruncher at least communicates something, whereas the message sent by the dead fish is completely apathetic. This handshake can ruin a meeting before it even begins. If you suspect you have any tendency toward dead fish shakes, you will need to act fast. Just like dead fish, the longer they’re ignored, they more they stink.
Another great classic is the finger squeeze, which—sadly—certain women believe to be “more feminine” and hence “more appropriate.” But this type of handshake can also be the result of confusion, bad timing, or overeagerness (wanting to squeeze too soon). The pumper can also give an impression of overeagerness or insecurity as one person just keeps pumping away, afraid to let go.
Now we get into the lesser celebrities. The sanitary shake, where the hand is barely touched and then quickly withdrawn, tends to leave behind a feeling of rejection. The pull-in can start with a good shake, but its ending (directing you toward a certain direction) will ruin any good feelings that were initially created. What’s worse, the person being reeled in can feel somewhat manipulated.
More direct is the dominant handshake, which is characterized by the hand being extended, palm down. This (characteristically more male, sorry!) hand position symbolizes, perhaps, the intention to “have the upper hand” in the equation. A nasty variation of this shake would be the twisting dominant, where the hand is extended innocently straight outward, but twists once the shake is initiated to gain the upper hand. If you receive this kind of handshake, watch out! It tells you a thing or two about how this person intends to conduct the relation.
We’ll close this woeful list with the classic two-handed handshake. In this case, you’ll also feel the left hand at work, closing in on your hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, or neck. It’s also known as the “politician’s handshake”…. Enough said!
So what, say you, are the ingredients of a perfect handshake? I’m so glad you asked. First things first: Make sure your right hand is free. Shift anything it may be holding—briefcase, purse, etc.—to your left hand, well in advance. You don’t want to have to scramble at the last minute.
Avoid holding a drink in your right hand, especially if it’s a cold drink; the condensation will make your hand feel cold and clammy, thus producing the dreaded dead fish. If you tend to have clammy hands naturally, just give them a spray of antiperspirant before you leave the house.
Always place nametags on your right-hand side. That way, when you extend your hand for a handshake, it will be right in the other person’s line of sight.
Before shaking someone’s hand, rise if you’re seated, no matter whether you are a man or a woman. And even if you have nothing in your hands, keep them out of your pockets. Showing your palms, being openhanded, makes you look more open and honest.
Make sure to use plenty of eye contact, and smile warmly but briefly—too much, and you’ll appear overeager. For the same reason, make sure your arm is fully extended. An arm too close to the body looks insecure. Keep your head straight, without tilting it in any way, and face the person “heart to heart” to ensure full frontal facing.
You’ll want to keep your hand perfectly perpendicular, neither dominant (palm down) nor submissive (palm up). If you’re in doubt, focus on keeping your thumb pointing straight to the ceiling.
Here are the two most important points to remember when engaging in a handshake: First, open wide the space between your thumb and index finger to make sure you get contact between the webs of your thumbs. Second, ensure contact between the palms of your hands by keeping your palm flat—not cupped—and by draping your hand across your handshake partner’s in a diagonal. Try to “wrap” your fingers around your counterpart’s hand, scaling your fingers one by one as if you were giving a hug with your hand. It’s as if you were trying to engulf their hand in yours, embracing their hand. You almost have your index finger on their pulse (almost, but not quite).
Once full contact is made, put your thumb down, lock thumbs, and squeeze about as much as your counterpart did—firmly, but no more than they. Shake from the elbow (not the wrist), linger for a moment if you want to convey particular warmth, and step back.
Olivia Fox Cabane is the Executive Director of Spitfire
Communications, a training and consulting firm based in
New York. She helps her clients achieve increased business
development, gain greater visibility and credibility, and
improve their communication skills. Email her at
Olivia@spitfireteam.com or visit her website: