The Perfect Handshake

8 May 2015

The Perfect Handshake

When I was a child my Grandfather taught me how to give a good handshake. My Grandad was a bank manager back in the days when being a banker was respectable and when a local business manager made lending decisions based on his personal judgement and not upon what the computer said. He told me that a good handshake was a critical part of a first impression and that that first impression made a huge difference in whether or not he agreed to loan that person money.

History proved my Grandad right. The vast majority of his decision proved to be correct. He was a good judge of personality and he made some pretty insane lending decisions based solely on his personal confidence in an individual.

A twenty-five year old from a recent immigrant family once came to him to borrow a large sum of money to buy a Ferrari. He owned a local corner store. He was young. He didn’t have much money. He had insignificant assets to use as security. His family didn’t have the assets to be a guarantor. He wanted a huge sum of money to buy himself a luxury item he didn’t need. On paper everything about this request says irresponsible risk. I can’t imagine any bank agreeing to this loan. But my Grandad did.

My Grandad agreed to this loan because he had total confidence that this hard working young man was going to be a huge success. The young man went on to build a business empire, paid back the loan and became a multi-millionaire. He never forgot the confidence that my Grandad had put in him when he was young and he stayed loyal to the bank.

One of the key indicators that this young man was going to be a success was his handshake.

Yet despite how important a good handshake, despite the volumes of information it subtly communicates about you, most people know very very little about them.

Its easy to think that as most people don’t know that much about them that most people won’t judge you on it. This is false.

Even if the recipient does not have an explicit understanding of the secret language of handshakes they will intuitively understand what is being communicated, even if they could then not then identify where that impression came from.


The earliest incarnation of the handshake developed in ancient Rome. The open hand, palm facing the person you are greeting gesture was already dominant across most cultures as a sign that you were unarmed. However the Romans were infamous for hiding blades up their sleeves and so they developed the additional greeting between negotiating generals that they would clasp each others forearms so that both could feel that the other was not concealing a blade.

The modern incarnation of the handshaking being palm to palm started in the nineteenth century as a way that traders of equal status would seal a transaction at the end of a negotiation.

The handshake did not become a popular meeting gesture until about a hundred years ago and it has grown increasingly popular, initially just between businessmen and then between men and now it is pretty much consistently used in most situations by both genders.


The handshake is intended to be a gesture between social equals. A good handshake is an offer of equality and respect.

However the reality is that many people unknowingly offer a dominant handshake, which is both presumptuous and insulting.

In the west there is a strong drive towards social equality even when there is a great difference in rank and position. In other cultures there is a clear social hierarchy with social norms requiring that the the dominant party take a dominant posturing and the submissive party take a submissive posturing. This can cause fatal social misunderstandings.

A good friend of mine found herself in just such a position. She was in a senior purchasing position for a Russian corporation. The Russians were following the american social system where the submissive mirrors the body language of the dominant. Her whole team were highly trained professionals and they had actually been trained to act this way. The Russian corporation was then bought out by a Turkish one and suddenly her bosses all came from a hierarchical social system. The Russians had actually had the forethought to ask their new owners what body language was expected of them. The Turks made it explicitly clear that they wanted to follow the western business and social system. However when the Russians met the senior Turkish management their western body language was interpreted as disrespectful insubordination and it soured every meeting. It resulted in official disciplinary action and was damaging to everyone involved. However because the Russians had had an explicit instruction from their Turkish superiors they did not realise that this was causing the issue. A lot of damage had been done before they realised that this was the cause and altered their behaviour. Which just goes to show how engrained social upbringing is. Despite the fact that the Turks consciously wanted to adopt the western social system the social hardwiring that they grew up with overruled it and they continually took offense where none was intended.

Visa versa in the west we have an ingrained dislike for anyone who overtly positions themselves to be our social superior. Even if this is the social reality and you are the employee and person offering you the dominant handshake is your employer it is perceived to be distasteful egotism or simply poor leadership.


A dominant / submissive handshake is one where one hand is on top of the other. Hence the term ‘having the upper hand’. In almost all cultures the display of palms up is seen as submissive. It is the universal gesture for begging. Whereas palm down is the position of power and dominance.

A good example of this is the nazi salute.

If you offer a handshake where your palm is facing down you are asking the person receiving the handshake to acknowledge their inferiority to you by offering their hand palm up.

It’s also a rule of degrees. The more horizontal the handshake the greater the difference of status. The closer the handshake is to being vertical the closer your social status.

The right thing to do when offering your hand to a stranger is to offer a vertical handshake that states clearly that you acknowledge their position as your equal. However if you admire that person you can offer them a submissive handshake, with your palm turned up. To do so is a sign of respect. Were I to meet any of my role models like Leonard Cohen or Richard Branson, I would offer them a submissive handshake in acknowledgement of my heartfelt respect for them.

By the way if you google the term ‘Richard Branson handshake’ you’ll notice that in all but one of the results he has a vertical handshake and in the only one that he has a dominant one the lady shaking his hand is leaning in which suggested that she offered him the submissive one. Richard Branson is well known for the respect and decency with which he treats everyone around him.


I have on a number of occasions been very tempted to refuse to shake hands with someone who offers a handshake that is turned heavily to the palm down position. To say ‘You don’t honestly expect me to accept such an insulting handshake’ and leave them hanging arm in the air. However unless you are in a situation where you are openly in a confrontational negotiation this will probably do more harm than good.

You can take their hand and force it back to vertical but you have to have some confidence in your superiority of physical strength to do this and if their hand is turned more than more than 30 degrees then its also quite conspicuous.

There are two ways to counter this.

Fighting to get the upper hand

  1. You place your free hand on top of theirs and give them the double handshake. This gives you the upper hand. However this again gives you a social inequality that might insult them and they can then counter with their free hand. The double handshake from both parties is generally a sign that there is a power struggle going on.
  2. The better solution is to move your left foot forward and turn your shoulders horizontal to the other person. This movement will pull the handshake to your solar plexus and here you have your greatest physical power. Even if they are stronger than you it is both natural and easy to move the hands to the vertical equal position.

Two power players subtly trying to dominate the other.

If you do wish you make your dominance over them really clear and this is not advisable in a business situation, but I used to use it a lot in nightclubs, there is a technique. I paid my way through my masters degree by doing security in London nightclubs. I would often be offered dominant handshakes by aggressive customers and it was vital that I maintained authority. I discovered quite early that underneath their social niceness many men are very much predators and like with a shark weakness and injury encourages aggression whilst strength and confidence makes them back off. If I wanted to avert a fight I had to make it clear that whilst I respected them, I was in control and I did not fear them. Which was hard because often I did fear them. The technique to take control of the handshake is to do what you do in suggestion two but to at the same time to take their right elbow in your left hand. Placing your left thumb into the soft skin on the inside fold of their elbow where the vein is and your middle and ring finger into the sensitive area on on the inside side of the knobby bone of the elbow. You’ll find a groove where the two bones meet and in there there are a lot of nerve endings. Do not squeeze. Rather move your left elbow in front of your chest, so it cannot be pushed out to the left and behind you and hold the elbow firmly but without exerting pressure. Hold your arms outward so as to keep them at a distance. From this position they cannot mirror your elbow hold and it leaves you with a huge amount of control. If you have been trained in Ju Jitsu you have a lot of options from this position. Most people I did this to accepted my revised vertical handshake and afterwards acted less aggressively towards me. I made it clear to them and more importantly their friends that I respected that person but was not intimidated by them.


The Vice

Some men have the false belief that good handshake is about strength and so they crush the other person’s hand. That by showing their physical prowess they gain respect. This is utter bollocks. Crushing the other person’s hand is a monumental display of personal weakness. I am quite a strong man and sometimes I have received this handshake with such force that my eyes have watered. I can’t imagine how much worse it is to a woman half my size.

The Fingertip Grab

The awkward fingertip grab

The fingertip grab tends to happen between men and women or between someone who lives in the country and someone who lives in a city. It happens when the offering party misjudges the other person’s personal space or because one person is either too nervous to full extend or receive. What happens is that one person ends up holding the other person’s fingers and not their palm. The fingertip grab says that you lack confidence, either because you are not comfortable with other people near you or because you are nervous and fumbled the distancing. The best thing to do in this situation is to take the other persons right hand with your left one and say ‘Lets do that again properly’ and shake their hand properly. You are telling that person that you care enough about them to want to shake their hand properly.

The Pump Handle

When you make a handshake and you are both comfortable staying in each others private space you can keep the hands clasped as you finish your verbal greeting. What you should not do is keep pumping the arm up and down. The comfortable maximum number of pumps is seven. Any more than that and your initially friendly handshake becomes forcefully extended and the recipient will feel that they are being physically restrained and wish to escape.

The Wet Fish

Having a damp palm is perceived as as sign of a weak and nervous character. Sweating is a nervous response and the hands have more sweat glands than anywhere else in the human body so its more noticeable there. Receiving a damp fish handshake is not a nice sensation. Especially if you then have to shake more hands and your hand is now damp with someone else’s sweat.

You may not actually be nervous. It could be that you had to run to the meeting, or have been on the underground, or a stuffy meeting room or maybe you just have naturally damp hands. There is no perfect solution but there are a few tricks to be aware of. You can wipe your hands on a handkerchief, or your trousers. Though the latter is better if it is done inconspicuously before you approach the other party. When you know that a handshake environment is coming up you can hold your hand away from the heat of your body, with your fingers parted so air can move between them. This will help your hands dry through the process of evaporation for a couple of minutes before you start shaking hands. If you are at a networking event you probably have a hot drink. Make a point of holding it in your left hand as the heat will make your hand sweat more.

The Stiff Arm Thrust

Everyone has a different comfort zone around their person. Generally if you grew up in the country it’ll be bigger, if you grew up in the city it’ll be smaller. There are a lot of variables that influence it and there is no correct comfort zone. However if you offer a handshake where your arm is straight, strong and held far away from your body it is a sure message that you don’t want that person to come within your personal comfort zone. This says that either the other person is offensive to you or that you are uncomfortable socially.

You will have to make a judgement call as to how close you get to the other person. Read their body language and adjust. It might be that they have a large comfort zone and want to stay reasonably far away however you should not lock that person out.

The Groper

I was taught this handshake when I was a doorman and it was a painful mistake that I had to unlearn. One of the combat risks posed by a handshake is that the other person can easily seize your wrist and turn it into a gooseneck lock and they can then lock you down or break your wrist. The solution that I was taught was to keep your middle and index fingers pointing forward. This kept the ligaments and muscles in the wrist aligned and this gives you much more strength to resist any such lock.

The issue is that it puts your middle and index finger down the soft skin on the inside of the other person’s wrist. I learnt the hard way that many women considered this a sleazy attempt at a grope. I was at first infuriated and then despondent when the girlfriend of a close family friend reported via my brother that the first impression that she got of me at a family gathering was so unfairly and extremely negative because of our initial handshake. Then my horror mounted when I realised that I had been giving girls that handshake for almost the whole three years that I worked security and many of them must have had the same reaction.

It took a long time to unprogram that handshake and sometimes if I am rushed I still give it and immediately regret it. That was almost ten years ago. She since married the family friend and they are a perfect couple. I don’t see them often and when I do I don’t talk to her for long. When I do I am aware that we still have not developed a natural rapport, which for me is rare, and I still wonder how much of that is the legacy of a single bad handshake.

The Bodybuilder

One thing that I have noticed when shaking hands with particularly strong men is that they do not clasp hands evenly. This is the result of there only being one muscle in the hand, which is the one at the base of the thumb. They have tend to make contact more with the oversized top part of the hand than the softer bottom. The result is a slightly unsatisfying and insincere embrace. It can also be uncomfortable as all the pressure is localised. Like the fingertip grab it is a failed embrace, however unlike the fingertip grab it isn’t such an overt failure that you can then start again and call it a social stumble.

The Perfect Handshake

The ideal handshake is a meeting of palm on palm and it should be offered and received vertically. Your hand should be confidently held out midway with your elbow relaxed, allowing the other person to either come closer or keep their distance. The hands should clasp and the palms should meet all the way around. The middle of your palms won’t meet because a palm is concave but connection should be made all around the outside. Your hands should be comfortable in each others. One part of the hand should not press harder than any other. You should have a firm hand and give a small squeeze but not so much that if you had an egg in your hand that it would break. The force should be applied equally across the whole hand. You can then add strength to match the other persons firmness if they have a stronger handshake. You should pump the hand about four times but moving no more than about an inch. Though you do not have to pump the hand at all. An unpumped hand is less formal and more intimate than a pumped hand and maybe not appropriate for meeting a stranger. You can keep the hands clasped throughout the verbal introductions but once the verbal introduction is over you must let go quickly.

A good handshake will tell the other person that you respect them, are confident in your professional, physical and emotional power, and that you are a sincere person who honours your word and deals with others fairly. A good handshake will make someone immediately feel comfortable in your presence and trust you.

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