Hand-Shaking Tips for Making the Right Impression 

Is a bad handshake such a bad thing? Yes, and especially when the person whose hand you are shaking has a professionally firm one, writes Joseph Barber.

April 9, 2018
 
 
iStock/m_pavlov

Take a moment to think about your handshake. When was the last time you shook someone’s hand? Why did you do it? Were you standing or sitting? Did the other person have a strong handshake? What impression did they make on you? Now, being very honest, rate your average handshake on a scale of one to five on the following criteria: 

  • Firmness (with five being very firm) 
  • Moistness (with five being very dry) 
  • Confidence (with five being very confident) 

How did you score? Some of you probably know you have a firm handshake because you have given this a lot of thought. But for those of you who haven’t thought about it, or who generally get creeped out by the prospect of touching another person's dirty, sweaty hands, you might find it much harder to rank yourself across these categories.

Now, in terms of moistness, that will generally be dependent on the situation and the environment. A handshake in the middle of summer just before an important job interview is likely to be the perfect storm of dampness. Nervousness and sweat go hand in hand. (You see what I did there!)

When it comes to confidence, it’s really a combination of several variables: the confident thrusting forth of your hand to greet someone, the length and firmness of the shake, your body language while giving it, and the way you look into the eyes of your hand-shaking partner and introduce yourself with a strong tone of voice.  

Yes, the good, old-fashioned handshake can say a lot about you, and you should get it right in order to make your first impression count -- whether at an interview, meeting new people at your next conference or as part of your broader networking outreach. I will share some general tips about what you need to be thinking about when engaging in hand shaking. 

First of all, a quick admission: I would say that one out of five of my handshakes is not good. When my handshake goes badly, it triggers that part of my brain that seems to delight in remembering in exquisite detail every second of an awkward experience. Days, months and, in some cases, even years after an introduction where I messed up a handshake, I can still recall the exact situation. It is not that the person whose hand I was shaking badly pointed out that it was a bad experience. They may not have even noticed, for all I know. I did.

And the reason such experiences stick in my “awkward memories from your whole life” scrapbook in my brain is that I didn’t present myself in the way that I wanted to, or planned to do, and I feel like I let myself down. The bad hand shaking version of me is not who I want people to know, because that person is uncoordinated and awkward.

Why were those handshakes bad? Well, in most cases because I just didn’t pay attention to that moment in time. I stuck my hand out and grabbed at the other hand, and it just didn’t click into place. The person shaking my hand got a handful of my long, noodly, wiggling fingers instead of my usual firm grip. In one case, I actually had to stop the shake and ask for a redo -- I couldn’t take it. The damage was done, though, and one cannot simply erase the disaster that went before. That was a terrible first impression. (Thanks, brain, for bringing that memory back into my consciousness!) 

Is a bad handshake such a bad thing? Yes, and especially when the person whose hand you are shaking has a professionally firm one. A weak handshake automatically sets you apart in their mind and gives them something negative to associate with you. People make up their minds about a new person they are meeting quickly, and once an initial impression has been made, it can be difficult to change that perspective.

A weak handshake followed by a great interview is not going to be a disaster, but a weak handshake followed by just a half-decent interview might leave your interviewers seeing your performance in a more negative light. A weak handshake can give people a bias toward seeing other negatives in you. You don’t want that to happen. A strong first impression can help you prevent that. 

Also, in the global world of work, it is important to know that different cultures have different ideas about handshakes. If you are an international student in the United States, the firm handshake is something you will need to learn and use -- it is appropriate for greeting men and women.

In a recent networking workshop, a female student shared a story about shaking hands with a man in a work environment who purposefully gave her a soft handshake. We discussed the fact that maybe the man just had a weak handshake, and she reported that this wasn’t the case, and that when asked about it he had said he did this because she was a woman. The question posed was whether she should call people out about this sort of behavior if it happened again. Since no one likes being called out, and since it is hard to modify someone else’s behavior, the advice I shared was for her to focus on what she could directly control: her own handshake.

A firm handshake communicates a strong, confident personality. The firmer your shake, the firmer the other person’s shake will likely become. Please note, firm does not mean crushing. How firm is firm enough? Well, if you are trying to open a door, you need to grip the door handle firmly enough so that it doesn’t keep slipping out of your hand, right? In fact, you would look fairly foolish trying to open a door with a limp handshake grip. Since door handles are hard metal, you’ll get no benefit trying to squeeze the life out of it -- you’ll just end up hurting yourself. So, the firmness of the grip you use when opening a door might be a good starting point for the firmness of a good handshake. If you still feel confused about the difference between firm and painfully crushing, find a friend or two and practice. Get feedback from them on what is weak, firm or just too much.

Here is some general advice about implementing a successful handshake: 

  • Where possible, stand up to shake hands.  If you are already standing and moving toward people, then you can start the handshaking gesture about five feet from your target.
  • Make sure you are facing the person, with good eye contact and a confident greeting when you reach out. That will prevent you from standing there with your hand out looking like you are directing traffic while they are still busy talking to someone else.  
  • Dry hands are ideal. That means that if you are at a networking event or conference, don’t leave the bathroom until every part of your hand is totally dry after washing. Everyone has to pee, and so the likelihood that you will meet someone you wanted to chat with somewhere near the restroom is actually very high. No matter how many times you swear to your hand-shaking partner that your hands are wet because you just washed them (not a great first impression to have to make this argument), somewhere deep inside their subconscious they will fear the worst! 
  • As you are engaging hands, keep your thumb pointing up. Don’t try to engage with a palm up or palm down approach. 
  • Move your hands forward, and don’t grip or squeeze until the web of your hand (between the thumb and your first finger) has firmly engaged with the web of your partner’s hand. A strong forward motion helps you to lock your hands together.
  • Don’t bring you hand in from the side as if you are slapping someone on the back -- that messes everything up! 
  • The shake should last two to five seconds, with one to three up-and-downs, giving you enough time to say your name, listen to their name and then respond with their name (e.g., “It is great to meet you, Trevor.”) Shake from your elbow; you don’t need to engage your shoulder to do any heavy lifting. 
  • Maintain eye contact during the shake. 
  • In a group setting where you are meeting more than one new person, finish one introduction and shake before you move on to the next one.
  • Shake at the beginning of a social interaction and at the end. Just make sure that the parting shake is much better than the starting shake if you had any issues with the first one. 

 Your handshake is easy to improve, and with enough focus on the moment in time when you are meeting new people or reconnecting with people you already know, you will be able to make a good impression on people in your professional network. 

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Career Consortium logo and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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