There is more to a handshake than you think

President Trump is well-known for his unique handshake, for better or worse. To say the least, it is firm. He also has a habit of patting the other shaker’s hand, a gesture that is at once intimate and patronizing.  It has been called “dominating.”

However, he sometimes oversteps the bounds. Recently, he botched an attempt to shake the British monarch’s hand. Queen Elizabeth II only ever offers her fingertips, so he couldn’t really get a grasp. In the photos, it looks almost like a Royal fist bump.  Actress Kathleen Turner says, “He has a gross handshake. He goes to shake your hand and with his index finger kind of rubs the inside of your wrist. He’s trying to do some kind of seductive intimacy move. You pull your hand away and go yuck.”

Regardless of what one thinks (or overthinks) of Donald Trump’s appendage wagging, the handshake is perceived as an important aspect of modern human interaction. It is a non-verbal signal of position and intention. In its origin, it was believed that an out-stretched right hand (typically the dominant arm) without a weapon was a gesture of peaceful intent when greeting another stranger. It is not dissimilar to the basis of the military salute, which is thought to have originated in medieval Europe, when knights used their hands to raise their visors, revealing their identity to demonstrate they were friendly.

Historian Walter Burket put it succinctly, “An agreement can be expressed quickly and clearly in words but is only made effective by a ritual gesture: open, weaponless hands stretched out toward one another, grasping each other in a mutual handshake.” Today, it has less martial meaning.

Frequently, the opening contact of a human interaction is initiated when someone you have just met reaches out their own hand. In that small moment, sometimes caught off-guard, your response can dictate how you are perceived for a life-long relationship. As the saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” While perhaps a trite witticism, it is true. How many times has a bumbled greeting led you to think, “What an idiot!” Or perhaps, “I hope I didn’t just come off badly.” After all, bad impressions run both ways.

Over the years, I have experienced my share of bad handshakes.

In the military, there was often a macho contest for dominance-a bone crushing grip. You had to get your hand around the other guy before they could out match you. Once there, you gave vice-like squeezed, often with a fake release that momentarily relaxed the other guy so that you could get in one more painful press. I hated it, mostly because that particular interaction did not play to my strengths; I have neither extraordinarily large hands, nor orangutan-like strength. (Yea, even in my glory days I could barely palm a basketball).

On the other extreme is the limp-noodle handshake. There is nothing quite as unimpressive as a dead fish lying in your hand, that is unless it is also wet or sweaty. Yuck, indeed. Needless to say, this does not engender a great deal of confidence in the owner of such a gesticulation.

Regardless of the technique, other characteristics of the “first contact” interface are important. Paramount of these is what you do with your eyes. Direct eye contact implies sincerity and honesty. Never look away. It infers insecurity or possibly, suspiciousness. It is said that the eyes are windows to the soul, at a minimum it gives an insight into a person’s character.

One can also gain other insights into your opposite through this interaction. The feel of someone’s hand can give an indication of what that person does or how they live. Is the skin soft or rough?” Calloused or not? An office worker or a tradesman? Often the attire can give this away, but there is no disguising the tactile traits of another person’s skin.

So, is there is a “perfect” handshake? Like Goldilocks and the three bears it needs to be “just right.” Firm, but not too hard. A respectable duration (about 5 seconds), but don’t linger. Forthright body language, upright and confident. Perhaps most important, a straight-forward look in the eye.

Sadly, health concerns and perhaps a growing need for personal space has made the formal handshake less prevalent in informal social settings. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Most Baby-boomers will still reach out, not so much it appears with Millennials. Originally the domain of athlete, the fist bump is becoming more popular. It also has the advantage of minimizing germ-transferring flesh contact. Contrary to that, the hug, even the “man hug” is coming back into vogue (close, but not too close). Ever the avant-garde, the French never had a doubt about its appropriateness; a little smack on each cheek might do as well.

Well, maybe the handshake doesn’t matter so much after all. Or, maybe it is whether you leave an impression, the good or bad. Perhaps it is like the old PT Barnum quote, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”  You can think anything you want of me as long as you think of me.

On a final note, a very important date rolls around next week. The last Thursday of June is National Handshake Day. Yea, I know. I thought it was a gag too, but its real. So, go out there and grab a strange hand. (That didn’t sound quite right, but you know what I mean).

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