Shake It Like You Mean It


Okay people, I have a feeling a lot of you aren’t going to agree with me on this one but I’ve just got to say it – handshakes are overrated! I know, I know, a firm handshake is ‘a sign of confidence’, it can ‘get you promoted’, it ‘makes a strong first impression’, blah blah blah. Yeah, I get it, you’ve heard the same things told to you all your life and therefore it must be true.

Well, actually, that part has some truth to it – we’ve been told that a firm handshake connotes confidence so many times that by now I’m sure most people in the world believe it to be true. However, just because something has been said over and over again doesn’t necessarily make it true. We’ve just been conditioned into associating a character judgement to a physical movement. We’re no different than Pavlov’s dogs – for those who don’t know, Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist who conditioned dogs to salivate when he rang a bell. He did this by first giving the dogs meat powder to get them salivating. Then he rang a bell right before he gave them the meat powder. After ringing the bell and giving them the meat powder several times, the dogs associated the bell to the meat and linked the two together. Pavlov found he could then only ring the bell and it would still get the dogs to salivate.

I’m proposing the same idea applies to handshakes. We have been told so many times that a firm handshake is a sign of confidence that we have been conditioned to believe it. So much so that I remember some of my male friends in high school comparing handshakes to ‘prove’ who the ‘real men’ were. And it didn’t stop at high school. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about meeting someone for the first time and I was reminded to give a firm handshake to make a good first impression. Really? Come on people, my handshake is what’s supposed to make a good impression? Silly me, I thought it was my personality, my intellect, hell even my looks, that would have a more resounding impact on the impression I left but apparently, if my handshake wasn’t firm enough, all those other things wouldn’t matter. I’m sorry people but I just ain’t buyin’ what you’re sellin’.

Unfortunately, I think I’m in the minority on this particular rant of mine. A study conducted by four psychology students at the University of Alabama found associations between the firmness of the handshakes of their test subjects (among other evaluating criteria) and their personalities. Apparently “those with a firm handshake were more extroverted, open to new experience, less neurotic and shy than those with a less firm handshake.” Less neurotic? Believe me, I’ve met some pretty freaky (some might say neurotic) people in my time that have had handshakes that were plenty firm. I suppose extroverted would be a nice word to describe them…

The study must have had some merit to it because it did get published by the American Psychological Association. So I’ll give them that :-) It doesn’t, however, change my opinion on the subject. I do believe that a handshake is part of several indicators or behavioral traits that are used to form an impression of someone. Absolutely! It’s a part of the big picture. However, I do not believe that it’s the most important part of the overall assessment.

Consider this: let’s say someone you meet has a firm handshake that by all measures and metrics is rated as being a ‘good’ handshake. Check! They get the ‘confidence’ box ticked off on your evaluation of them. Now what happens if that same person is timid and shy throughout the rest of your interaction with them. Would your impression of that person remain that they were confident? Probably not. Now flip that around. Say you get to talking to someone and they’re full of personality, charisma and charm. You end your conversation with a handshake and find out that their end of the shake is a little weak or soft. Has your impression of them changed? I sure hope not.

I don’t know people, maybe it’s just me but I say that the handshake is completely overrated. People can practice their handshake till they’re blue in the palms but it isn’t going to change their personality or who they are. I tend to agree with Howard Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California who says “In general, any attempt to assign a single, major specific meaning to a gesture or touch is an oversimplification.” He goes on to say, “because people are very good at expressing and understanding a whole complex of interacting verbal and non-verbal messages.

What do you think? Is a firm handshake enough of an indicator of confidence?

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