The Power of a Handshake

By: Georgia McKee

You walk into a bar and get introduced to your future spouse by one of your friends. What do you do first? Shake hands.

A year later, you meet her father for the first time and are about to ask for his blessing. What do you do first? Shake hands.

Later down the road, you’re at the interview of a lifetime and walk into the office of the CEO. What do you do first? Shake hands.

Handshaking is an art that should be mastered by everyone.

A handshake conveys far more than an initial greeting. It can establish a sense of trust, or it can ruin your career. While it may seem far-fetched, a handshake can make or break a relationship.

Scholars at Ohio Wesleyan University conducted an experiment on 150 undergraduate students to test the correlation of types of handshakes and perceptions of character traits. The students were put into a room designed as if it were a networking event. After the students introduced themselves to each other, they reported on what each handshake told them about the other person. The researchers found that firm handshakes related heavily to the perception of extroversion and emotional expressiveness while weak handshakes related negatively to insecurity and shyness. The results concluded that the firmer a handshake is, the more social and confident a person is perceived.

Firm, but not crushing, handshakes can give you the edge when it comes to first impressions. When I worked in Washington, DC, I ran into my favorite author on the elevator of the Rayburn House Office Building. I went to shake his hand to thank him for his work. Although I could feel myself trembling with nervousness on the inside, I made myself memorable. The following afternoon when I emailed him to follow up, he referred to me in his reply as “the girl with the confident handshake.” Four months later, I had the internship of my dreams lined up.

Nonverbal behavior can be more powerful than verbal behavior, and in some cases, a handshake says more about a person than an introductory conversation. Unfortunately, younger generations are becoming sloppy with their nonverbal behavior, and people are noticing.

Dr. Paul Jennings and his colleagues at Wichita State University tested the impact of nonverbal communication in professional organizations. They gathered 505 businessmen and women from a range of organizations and surveyed their opinion on nonverbal communication within their workplaces. After reviewing the responses, they concluded there is an overall desire for more attention to nonverbal cues. The participants noted the need for better body language and eye contact from young professionals during first impressions. Young adults lacked the ability to establish themselves as professionals because of, among other nonverbal behaviors, their poor handshakes.

While handshaking and nonverbal gestures differ within cultures, the technique within the United States is universal. If you can master a solid handshake, you are pretty much set for any first impressions – whether they be professional or personal.

Now, let’s get started on your mastery.

The Dos and Don’ts of a handshake:


  • Make eye contact
  • Have a firm grip
  • Have tall posture – no slouching!
  • Stand up
  • Make it short and sweet
  • Repeat the person’s name so you remember it
  • Go for the web of the hand. You want the webbing between your thumb and index finger to meet the same spot on the other person’s hand.
  • Smile J


  • Have a limp hand
  • Hold a drink in your right hand – nobody wants to shake a wet hand
  • Shake for longer than three seconds
  • Pump the other person’s hand more than three times
  • Be too firm – the goal is to show confidence, not strength
  • Stay sitting down. Stand up and show respect

“Who initiates the handshake?” I think this is a situation-based answer. In corporate settings, it should always be the person who holds the higher position. However, in personal or networking settings, you can use your own judgement as to what is appropriate.

At the end of the day, show that you are present and value their time. This will make the other person remember you as confident, professional, and approachable. And if you make a mistake, don’t sweat it or make the situation awkward. There are several ways to save the moment. Direct the attention to the person you are greeting by asking them a question or giving them a compliment.

While a handshake seems simple, it is critical when making impressions and establishing yourself. The list of “dos and don’ts” may seem daunting, but it will become natural once you get it down. So, practice on your family members or roommates so you can master the art of handshaking. You never know when you will meet your role model in an elevator.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *