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The science and culture of the handshake

The curious history of the most basic of business formalities

culture of the handshake

The handshake is a fascinating ritual, but being an act that predates modern written history has made a definitive explanation of its origin impossible.

Ancient stone carvings depict the Romans shaking hands as far back as the 4th century BC and, while many theories exist, the most plausible explanation dates back to where an open right hand indicated that an individual was not carrying a weapon. If two men met and displayed empty right hands, they could assume the other would not attack them.

Fast forward a few hundred years and this seemingly simple act has become an essential part of the modern era.

Explaining its importance in today’s business world, business etiquette expert at Style for Success Terry Pithers says: “In business you do not get many opportunities for physical contact. The handshake allows a person to create a subconscious connection with another, especially when combined with a warm expression and eye contact.”

Body language expert and trainer Eliot Hoppe adds: “A handshake allows you to tell whether the individual on the other end is a friend or a foe and allows you to review the emotions of that individual leading into a meeting.”

An exact science

While some consider it to be nothing more than an act of the traditionalists, new neuroscience research has confirmed the old adage surrounding the influence of a handshake, namely that strangers do form a better impression of those who offer their hand in greeting.

“A handshake allows you to tell whether the individual on the other end is a friend or a foe and allows you to review the emotions of that individual leading into a meeting”
—Eliot Hoppe, body language expert and trainer

According to results of the study, led by Beckman Institute researcher Florin Dolcos and published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, “a handshake preceding social interaction enhanced the positive impact of approach and diminished the negative impact of avoidance behaviour on the evaluation of social interaction.”

Underlining the features that define a good handshake, Hoppe notes the action should include two to three pumps in an up-and-down motion, while always ensuring the other person’s grip is matched. He adds that as it is a North American tradition to shake hands with the right hand, it is essential that the instigator ensure his/her hand is dry and warm prior to the act itself.

Avoiding the “limp noodle”

Pithers adds that a good handshake should never be memorable but that it should consist of a firm grip, even pressure and a flat hand.

While some disregard the importance of style, most agree that weak, fingertip-grip handshakes, as well as the infamous “limp noodle” are likely to make a negative impression on a new business contact or customer, while a vice grip-style handshake presents an overly aggressive stance.

“Be sure to review the emotion of an individual going into a meeting,” advises Hoppe.

Being culturally aware

While both agree there are no specific Canadian regional expectations when it comes to handshake etiquette, it is worth remembering that customs for meeting and greeting people from other cultures vary widely.

In all Muslim and most Asian cultures, it is considered rude to present or receive an object with the left hand, according to the Centre for Intercultural Learning (CIL), part of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

“Although you may have heard that Chinese people are very shy, they do not maintain eye contact, they do not have firm handshakes, and they do not show their emotions,” reads the CIL’s online brief, Cultural Information — China. “The Chinese society is changing, especially with the newer generation. Be flexible in your approach . . . listen and respond accordingly.”

Getting to grips with the nuances across disparate cultures can be quite overwhelming. Canada’s CIL provides a comprehensive list of every country in the world on its website, and offers excellent advice on nonverbal communication and business etiquette.

Dos and don’ts

For those looking to make a good first impression, Hoppe and Pithers stress a number of “dos and don’ts.”

Hoppe suggests when meeting with clients or customers, one must be careful to not double clasp a hand, while also ensuring never to touch the recipient’s upper arm — an area he refers to as the “intimate zone.”

“The double clasp can often be seen as domineering or a sign of rank, while encroaching on a person’s intimate zone is a one-way ticket to the HR department.”

Handshakes should never be abrupt nor overly long

Meanwhile, Pithers advises that handshakes should never be abrupt nor overly long, and that every effort should be made to ensure that both parties are standing facing each other and not reaching over an object, such as a desk.

To borrow from the adage, you never get a second chance at a first impression in business. A strong handshake sets the tone and the perception of your abilities, while at the same time imparting a strong first impression to customers or business prospects. ◊