10.11  Does the handshake matter?

It's not just just common sense. The research shows that the handshake matters. It does in fact contribute to "first impressions." It is not an entirely bogus way for people to judge you: your handshake actually reflects certain personality characteristics. And the research shows that when it comes to self-promotion, handshake etiquette may be more important for women than for men.

Everyone knows, from personal experience, that we make judgments about people based on how they shake hands. It's one thing to say "Hi" or "good morning" to someone you pass on the street. It is something entirely different to engage someone at the level of touching hands and making physical contact. Sometimes it might mean nothing at all, like at a gathering where you are introduced to one person after the next. If you are a politician, you might shake hundreds of hands in the course of just a few minutes, simply because people want to connect to you. But there are other times when this ritual of personal engagement is a prelude to more important business that will follow. It could be at the start of a contest or negotiation, or in advance of an important interview, or upon meeting the parents or the family. Handshakes are an important introductory ritual in all manner of social contacts, and the research shows that the quality of the handshake makes a real difference.

There have been a number of studies that explore the dynamics of handshaking, but the one that stands out is an article by University of Alabama psychologists William F. Chaplin et al published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. What is unique about their study is that rather than gathering subjective data, they made an effort to provide objective measurements of the variables of interest. Their method itself is of interest.

The subjects in the study were introduced to four different "handshake judges" in a way that made it seem natural that they would be greeted with a handshake. Following the introduction, the subjects completed a set of personality tests, providing an independent measure of whether or not their handshakes reflected any actual personality differences.

Before being sent out to evaluate handshakes, the judges trained and practiced for a month, until they could reliably distinguish eight different handshake characteristics: completeness of grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigor, texture, and eye contact. In normal situations, it may not be the case that anyone actually judges you on all of these factors, but it is worth noting that these variables might all be in play when you do shake someone's hand. In addition to evaluating the characteristics of each handshake, the judges were asked their impressions about the personality characteristics displayed by each participant.

Although the judges rated the subjects on a full set of personality traits, it turned out that the handshake did not actually allow them to draw clear distinctions on particular traits. The judges did form consistent opinions of those whose hands they shook, but the judgments were global, rather than specific. They could reliably agree only on whether the handshake conveyed a "good impression" or a "poor impression."

It also turned out that the individual handshake characterstics (i.e., vigor, duration, eye-contact, etc.) were all highly correlated. In other words, people are not usually judged on these factors individually, and instead, the differences tend to collapse into one global factor which is best described as a "firm handshake."

After a month of training in how to judge a handshake, the judges were able to reliably identify those who had a firm handshake and to reliably distinguish those whose handshake provided for either a "good" or a "poor" impression.

As to how "firm handshake" corresponded to the measured personality factors, what they found is that it does correlate with factors such as "openness to new experience" and extraversion. Those who did not have a "firm handshake" were found to score higher on measures of "neuroticism" (which means that they tend to be more prone to anxiety) and to display more "shyness." In other words, from your handshake, people can learn whether or not you are shy and anxious, and whether you are "open" and outgoing.

The key points here may seem obvious, but it is worth repeating: people do in fact form impressions based on the quality of your handshake, and those impressions do reflect certain elements of your personality.

As to how this relates to "first impressions," the authors' next finding is particularly interesting. Women with a firm handshake were viewed as more "open," and made a more favorable impression. It is sometimes thought that when women present themselves as outgoing and confident, others will judge them negatively, believing that they are "pushy" or aggressive. What this research shows is that at least when it comes to the handshake, women benefit from appearing strong and are not penalized for appearing confident. For men, the effect was not as strong. In other words, a woman benefits more from having a firm handshake than does a man. For both genders, a weak handshake tends to generate less favorable impressions.

What this means is that everyone, both men and women, should pay attention to how they go about shaking hands. People are judging you and assessing your personality and character based on this moment of touch. For women, having a firm handshake is probably more important than for men.

The other point to be drawn from this study is that while your handshake is to some extent a genuine reflection of your actual personality, it can still be a practiced and developed skill. Think of the judges who spent a month learning how to receive a handshake and then realize that you can perfect and improve your own method before that important meeting.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi,Ph.D.