How someone shakes my hand, tells me a lot about that person. Are they friendly or standoffish, dependent or independent, focused or scattered?

In my more than three decades as a public relations and communications consultant, I have shaken more than my fair share of hands.  Thanks to my eclectic client roster, the hands I was shaking belonged to an amazingly diverse cross section of people including diplomats, corporate executives, community leaders and celebrities.

The momentary act of shaking someone’s hand is an incomparable communications tool. A handshake is much more than Wikipedia’s definition: “A short ritual in which two people grasp one of each other’s like hands, in most cases accompanied by a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands.”  Despite its brevity, a handshake is an extremely effective way to have a memorable one-on-one connection with another person.

When did this widely accepted and expected cultural convention start? There is no definitive answer since the beginning of the handshake predates written history. However, historians agree that whenever and wherever it started, handshakes were a ‘man thing.’ If two men met and displayed empty right hands, they could assume one would not be attacked by the other.

Since I consider myself something of a handshake aficionado, I take full advantage of the opportunity the gesture offers. It’s an incredible source of personal data. In that moment when two people’s hands are touching and they are directing their focus and energy on each other, a dozen blogs and 1000 Tweets worth of information is being transmitted.

People’s handshakes can be divided into three categories: The good, the bad and the ugly. Here is a breakdown of what each one says about you.

The Good – (This handshake labels you a “player” in the business game)

A good handshaker is focused. Full attention is paid to the person whose hand is to be shaken. Eye contact is made. The right hand is extended perpendicular to the ground, fingers open – especially the thumb and pointer. In the days of the dagger, the open hand signified that you were approaching in peace and did not have a weapon up your sleeve. Today, it means the same thing…only figuratively: A person who shakes with an open hand is someone who can be trusted. How many shakes? Two and then stop. While it’s acceptable to hold someone’s hand after completing the shakes, a good handshaker knows when to let go. Pay attention to people with good handshakes. These are the “players” you want to do business with.

The Bad (This handshake could get you sidelined in the business game)

There are a variety of bad handshakers. There’s the knuckle crusher who squeezes your hand so hard it hurts. That unnecessary display of strength lets me know that that’s someone who needs to be in charge and could be overbearing. The pumper shakes your hand enough times to make you think they are hoping to hit water. That kind of over-enthusiasm can be exhausting. Then there’s the dead fish shaker who basically deposits his/her hand in yours and lets you do all the shaking. You have to wonder if that person will carry their weight if you work together. Last but not least, there are those people who proffer dirty or sweaty hands for you to shake. There’s no excuse for that. Carry a hand sanitizer so you’re always handshake ready. If you have a sweaty palm problem, carry a handkerchief. Bad handshakers can often end up sidelined.

The Ugly  (This handshake will get you benched in the business game)

The most egregious and unfortunately all too common handshaking mistake people make is to unconsciously shake someone’s hand without any eye contact or modicum of attention. They are too busy looking around for someone more important or interesting to meet. It’s rude and unpleasant. These are people I avoid; they’re indefinitely benched.

Do you have a good handshake? It’s skill well worth developing. It’s an effective way to make a good impression and to let the world know you’re a “player.” There’s a reason politicians spend hundreds of hours shaking thousands of hands.


Bio Marian Rivman is a New York based public relations and communications consultant. Her clients have included UN agencies, Fortune 500 companies, international non-profits, bold-faced names and the recreational scuba diving industry. She is known for her unbounded energy, directness and skill at translating complex issues into comprehensible messages for an array of audiences.  Marian is particularly interested in the power of non-verbal communication. In addition to her independent consulting work, Marian is affiliated with New Solutions .




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July 5, 2012

The Power Of A Handshake

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  1. R. Bobby Ducharme

    July 5th, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Marian’s discussion on the handshake is right on! I have often made a first impression on how someone will behave based on their handshake. I am making eye contact and firmly grasping your hand to say thank you for the illuminating blog post.

  2. Lianne Sorkin

    July 5th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Great article!! LIKE 🙂 Going to share it with friends n colleagues – thanks!

  3. Alese & Morton Pechter

    July 5th, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    A handshake is a first and lasting impression and tells us so much about the person we are meeting. If you have ever been greeted by a limp hand, you know what we mean. This article sums it all up simply and precisely. It should be a “must read” for all … young, old … business, social … interviews, new friends. We shall pass it along.