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A Case of the Shakes: How-to Exposé on Handshake Etiquette

The Upper Hand  A Case of the Shakes: How-to Exposé  on Handshake Etiquette

Possibly more than other people (not sure why) I have had awkward greeting moments: handshake mishaps, cheek-kissing gone awry, hug or not to hug moments.  My all-time worst handshake moment was when I initiated a handshake with my right hand with a person who had a disabled (almost none) right hand.  Until that moment, I never noticed that this woman didn’t have a hand and I had initiated the handshake introduction with the rest of the people in the group setting.  Result: This woman stuck out her arm with gusto and accepted my shake.   I am still not sure if I handled everything correctly in this situation, but she was cool as a cucumber.  It was definitely my awkwardness and not hers.  I learned several things about myself in this moment, and thought I should share some handshake etiquette with you all.

  1. Who should initiate the handshake? Should one be initiated at all?

I tend to be an outgoing person and the breaker of tension in group settings.  When people seem to be hesitant or shy in introductions, I’m often the person who starts some kind of handshake scenario.  This is NOT always a good thing.  Instinctively, I stick out my hand when I meet a new person and that is not always the right thing to do.  Ooops!  Lahle Wolfe writes an article where she lists when to NOT shake hands, and raises some good points.  For example, she says not to handshake just to break an awkward moment of silence.  The awkward moment will continue after the handshake and…well…now you’ve touched too…so…  The handshake, Wolfe explains, is“an invitation for conversation or desire for social interaction.” Think before you offer your hand.  Do you genuinely want to speak to this person or engage them?  My thought is, “How do you know you don’t want to interact with a person until you’ve tried?”  Regardless, her main point is to think before you shake—at least PAUSE.  Does the other person have their hands full? No hand at all?  Maybe another approach would work better.

Also, she warns against being the first to shake in a power setting (especially at work).  Again, this is something I have never thought of or done.  The person with seniority or a higher position should be the initiator. Etiquette says you should WAIT until they decide to start the shake.  WHAT HAVE I BEEN UNCONSCIOUSLY TELLING PEOPLE ALL THESE YEARS?!  That I’m a bossy broad who laughs in the face of authority? Well, yes.  And though it is not far from the truth, pausing might serve me better in some situations.  At the very least, I now know this is a thing and can learn about others on a subconscious level whether they are aware of the rules or not.

2. Eye Contact

Duh.  No surprising revelations here. Make eye-contact to seem polite and look competent.  Look at the floor if you want to seem weak, rude, or uninterested.

3. Say something before you shake and probably after too.

Operating from the view that this handshake is an invitation, you should say something personal to accompany the invitation.  If you have no introducer, say something about yourself first (and wipe your sweaty hands on your pants) and then extend your hand.  If you are being introduced, greet the person and say THEIR name.  This helps you remember too.  Personally, “Nice to meet you, Alice,” has never been enough for me to remember this person’s name in a group setting.  I would have to say it a hundred times in conversation and that would make me seem like a crazy person.  And while it might not be far from them truth, we did just meet.

4. Pressure and Duration

(That’s what she said!–I couldn’t resist). Pressure and duration—isn’t that that conundrum of so many situations?!  Don’t shake too hard or too soft or too long.  Medium firmness, three pumps of the arm (maximum), and centered on the hand opposite you, is the formula for handshake success.  If you grab someone high or low on the hand, you say a lot about yourself.  If this is unintentional, practice.  If this is on purpose, you are either being a jerk or a snot..


In a “typical of Americans abroad” kind of way, Bill Gates had a handshake oopsie in Korea.  He keeps his opposite hand in his jacket pocket while greeting the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye. Joohee Cho’s article points out that this is rude internationally, even if it is trying to imply casual friendship.  I think even I knew this.  You come across as disinterested or secretive if you leave your other hand in your pocket.

Touching me with the other hand can also be too much.  This wiki-how article (so it must be TRUE) lists many ways in which touching a person with the other hand is almost always persuasive: clasping your other hand over the shake, touching them on the arm, touching them on the shoulder, etc.  Do not, under any circumstances, touch the other person on the FACE during a handshake.  I am imagining this and laughing.  Also, other areas are a “no-no” for touching and strictly off-limits.  Stay tuned for my “How not to shake hands” instructional video.  In fact, I’m YouTubing it. (Result: I feel the need for my own PSA video exists.  In progress.)

Armed with my new knowledge, I will be shaking at least three hands today to practice.  Summary: Pause and think before you shake.


P.S. I just tried shaking my husband’s hand while touching him on the face.  It definitely doesn’t work.



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