Eleven tips to stop your handshake miscommunications

First Handshake

First Handshake by MJ/TR on Flickr

I shake hands. I am a handshaker. It’s my favorite element of a greeting, and it’s a key element of how I communicate who I am and the nature of my relationship with someone to them.

That’s right, shaking hands is a form of communication. It’s an integral part of body language. And it falls within the purview of lexicology. So I’m writing about it. 😉

I’ve gotten quite a few compliments on my firm handshake, mostly from guys with hands like a giant’s. I speculate they’re as tired as I am of diffident and wimpy handshakes and appreciate the grip of a guy who knows how to do it.

But even if you do have a strong grip and shake people’s hands with attention, you can be doing it wrong. And you can definitely be underusing this communication medium, neglecting to take advantage of its full potential.

So here we go. 😀

The first thing I’m going to talk about is the obvious fish grip. That’s where you don’t actually grasp the other person’s hand at all – you just kind of put your hand by their’s in a completely relaxed state. There are numerous reasons why this is a bad thing to do. The first is that you can actually get hurt if they have a strong grip and aren’t skilled enough in handshaking to save your hand. Don’t put the onus on them to avoid crushing your metacarpals. The second is that it communicates weakness and a diffidence about your relationship with the other person. You aren’t really interested in them and you’re only shaking their hand as a matter of course to be polite. Which is ironic because a fish grip is anything but polite.

(I’ve always wondered what two fish grippers do when they shake hands with each other… how do they hold on? Do they hook thumbs or something?)

The next mistake is the mash grip. This is a common error for guys who work out a lot and aren’t focusing on being courteous (either that or they just haven’t got a clue because they haven’t been taught). It is also the bane of the fish grip. A mash grip is when you grab someone’s hand and proceed to mash it into a pulverized mass of quivering nerves and bruised muscles. Yeah, you’re showing strength (and possibly benificence), but you’re also showing a lack of self-control and care for the other person. Avoid the mash grip like the plague.

Another handshaking fail is what I call the super shake. You grab the other person’s hand and pump it up and down exaggeratedly. The range of motion in a super shake varies, but I’ve experienced handshakes that moved my arm over a distance of a foot and a half in both directions. Not fun. And if this is coupled with a mash grip it spells chaos for your wrist. Besides the fact that the only thing you can do is go along for the ride. This communicates enthusiasm generally, but like the mash grip, it also communicates a lack of care for the other person. It’s almost embarrassing. What’s really weird is when someone combines this with a fish grip. It’s one of the most difficult handshakes to meet and deal with. You gotta hold on without hurting them while trying to anticipate their next movement so you can follow along. Crazy.

The last problem grip I’m going to mention is the freeze grip. Like the mash grip is the opposite extreme to the fish grip, this one is at the other end of the super shake. Let’s say you walk up to someone and grasp their hand in a friendly handshake, and you start to try and… you know, shake his hand. That’s what you do in a handshake, right? Not in this guy’s world. No, he grabs on and locks your paw in one set of coordinates in twelve dimensions. Don’t do this, people. A handshake is a handshake for a reason. It’s an action, not a state. This grip can communicate anything from a threat, to control, to fear, to insecurity, to all kinds of things. It all depends on the rest of your body language.

Okay, enough about the wrong grips, what about the right one?

The right grip is a strong grip. Here’s how you can tell if you are doing it right. Hold your hand out like you are shaking someone’s hand. Now act like you are shaking their hand, just without holding onto anything. Does your forearm tighten? Good, that’s not a fish grip then. Does your fist close? Bad, that means you’re doing a mash grip. Your hand should maintain it’s general form, while being strongly tense. It’s isometric, using your own grip muscles to oppose themselves instead of the other person’s hand. This way, if you are shaking an old lady’s hand, you can give them a firm, secure, friendly, committed handshake without endangering them. This is also the best defense against a mash grip. This is because it strengthens the structure of your hand so it won’t be crushed while still engaging with the other person – without challenging them to a crush match (not fun if the guy is twice your size and can smash raw apples with his bare hands). Your grip will still dynamically engage with them, giving a good amount of squeeze so you don’t give the impression of a robot, but it also won’t be trying to fold their palm into an accordion.

But the hand grip and motion is only a part of a handshake. What about the rest of your body language?

For example, eye contact – don’t look anywhere but in the other person’s eyes when you shake their hand. It’s rude to be looking at one person while shaking another person’s hand. If someone else walks up and you want to greet them, look over at them to acknowledge them, then look back at the person you are currently shaking hands with before disengaging and moving on. Don’t look down at your handshake while you are doing it: look them in the face. When you first come up to someone you want to greet with a handshake, look at their eyes, smile, look down as you put your hand out in order to make sure you make good contact without hurting them or missing, and look back up as you shake their hand, holding eye contact until after you let go of their hand.

And always smile. Period. Full stop. Even if it’s a little one while you’re crying. A smile is an integral part of a friendly handshake. Without a smile it almost feels like a threat. 0.0

Give your handshake personality and uniqueness, not just to you, but to your relationship with the other person. Each person I shake hands with has their own unique shake that I give them. With one person I lean forward a certain amount, give a certain kind of grin, grasp his hand just so, move it up so much, move it down and slightly forward so much more, smile more, nod a bit, and then disengage with a small bow. With another lady I always take a step forward with a certain smile, bow while extending my hand, grasp hers with a slightly supine grip (instead of holding my hand vertical, it’s almost sideways, as if I was going to kiss her hand), shake it down once while saying “My lady,” and disengage with a grin and a step back. Sometimes I intensify it, especially if I haven’t seen them in a while. Sometimes I combine it with a friendly shoulder hug.

Always use their name. If it is appropriate to use their first name, do so. Make the effort to learn and remember people’s names and use them. It makes a huge difference, and gives life to an otherwise ordinary handshake and greeting.

Now, what about if you are a girl, or if you are shaking hands with a girl?

Same principles apply. Make sure you always match the enthusiasm and duration of your handshake to your relationship with the other person, though. You don’t want to convey the wrong thing by breaking off too late or too early. Be natural, and be friendly. Once you get familiar with handshakes and their nuances, and once you’ve got the hang of your personal style, you’ll be able to handle this intuitively.

And lastly… do it. Shake people’s hands! Don’t avoid it, just start doing it. That’s really the only way you’ll get used to it and get practice. Watch and listen to their feedback, either from their comments or their body language. Don’t go around asking people to test out your handshake (though that would be a fun adventure and a way to meet new people, haha), just be observant. Learn, grow, improve.

Become a communication master.

P.S. Write your tips, experiences, and questions in the comments!

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