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Master the Art of the Proper Business Handshake

25 Jun 2019

Throughout June, we have turned our focus towards the miniscule elements that build towards the success at a trade show or an exhibition. Past subjects have been small talk and the skill to commit new names to memory. Now, we’re going to dig into body language and tackle the dreaded thing that often makes businesspeople at every hierarchical level sweat over – the handshake. Although in personal social interactions, there’s less anxiety about failing the handshake, in business it’s the first sign of your level of competence and chance to impress.

A good, firm handshake conveys confidence, experience and ease into the professional role you’re currently inhabiting. A limp handshake is an unforgiveable sin and a poor reflection on the brand you represent. That’s why you have to know the etiquette for a proper business handshake.

Who Should Initiate a Handshake?

Common consensus dictates that the person who’s higher in social standing should be the one to initiate the handshake. If you’re introduced to a person in a senior managerial position and you’re not in management, then the other person should extend their hand in greeting to you. Age is one of the easiest denominators to use as a gauge.

At an exhibition, it’s murkier waters when you don’t have a clear idea who exactly you’re talking to (and that happens) or you’re on equal footing. Here the rule of thumb is to initiate the handshake when introducing yourself to a person. If there’s some delay in accepting your hand, it’s better to leave it there, because most often than not a person will respond rather than leave you hanging. Withholding a handshake after initializing is poor manners.

What Is the Best Body Language?

This part comes intuitively most often. The easiest way to shake a hand is to stand face to face and move your hand sideways. This allows you to be relatively close to the person and allows you to establish direct eye contact. Eye contact is very important to maintain during the handshake since it’s a gesture of trust. The origins of the handshake go back to ancient times, where strangers would show that they’re not harboring a weapon or any ill intent. Glancing away while shaking a hand is highly uncomfortable for the other person and highly suspect.

What Is the Best Strength?

You will read all about how handshakes can be used as ways to show dominance and establish an alpha presence. These guides will make you believe that you have to clench onto a hand to exert strength and control. In a business setting, you earn yourself no points. On the contrary, you show a great deal of insecurity by being so desperate to show how much stronger you are. It’s also the worst possible way to open negotiations for a business deal.

Your handshake should be firm (limp handshakes as the polar opposite of crushing force are also to be avoided) and you need to have a full contact. You want to achieve full contact and press the web of your hand against the web of the other person’s. If you’re still unclear about the strength, think about how hard you’d hold onto a hand, if you’re trying to pull a person fallen on the street back onto their feet. Not too dramatic.

How Long Should It Last?

You don’t want to confuse a potential client with a too-short handshake, but you also don’t want to invade their personal space by protracting it. The best strategy to incorporate is to talk during and after you’ve shaken hands. If you’re just meeting the person for the first time, the handshake becomes part of the introduction. Otherwise it’s part of a curt, pleasant greeting. If you stay within ten seconds, you’ll be fine.

This is the step-by-step process, but we want to also tackle a few additional questions:

  • Can I use my left hand? No. We’re sorry left-handed people, but it’s often considered as a rude gesture. Most people are right-handed and in some cultures the left hand is regarded as unclean, so you do not want to cause offense. The single instance where this cannot be avoided is if you’ve lost your right hand or are otherwise immobilized i.e. your right arm is in a cast or a sling.
  • Do I shake hands as a woman? For some reason, the handshake is still regarded as a male greeting only and there’s some hesitation when a man and a woman greet each other in a business setting. There’s absolutely no reason for women not to shake hands or initiate it in the first place rather than wait passively for the man to do so. Business handshakes are gender neutral, because they’re all about power and the recognition thereof. If you’re at the top of the food chain as a woman, it’s a privilege to assert your power and be the one who initiates the handshake. But be aware of customs surrounding gender in other cultures. This pertains to countries in the Middle East most notably.
  • What if the person is from another culture? This is where it becomes tricky to know the best etiquette for greeting. The most popular example is the Japanese businessman who’s quick to bow rather than shake hands. Most Asian cultures have a variation on the bow that you should be aware of, but it’s also not uncommon for Asian professionals to adopt the handshake in order to fit in international settings. It’s all about reading the room and doing some research. In France, the handshake is a one-time pump, so it’s certainly short. In the Middle East, handshakes tend to be softer and last longer as a sign of respect. Latin America has a firm approach to handshake, when meeting people for the first time, but then become a lot more affectionate once a connection is established.

In the end, you need to relax into it. Practice until you discover a style that’s more suited for you and also pay attention to how people perform this in your immediate environment. If you’re a new transplant in another culture or are assigned to work with clients from a certain country, observe the local etiquette and emulate.

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