Handshaking: What is it good for? [Part 1 of 3]

Handshaking What is it good for Part 1.jpg

*Hint: The answer is NOT “absolutely nothing”…

Have you ever stopped to think about the practice of shaking hands with people we meet in business functions and meetings? Why do we do it? Does it still make sense in this day and age? And do the rules about the proper protocol for how to shake hands still hold or should they be revised with time and progress in our society? Do other societies and cultural groups also use this practice and do the same norms apply there (as my friend Marina Kraus asked me)? My colleague Larry Straining added: “Is there an appropriate order (or hierarchy) for shaking hands in a group. Right to left? Ladies first? Age? Position?” And what about hugging vs. shaking hands - when do we do what? (Lori Saitz and Howard Walper both told me they wonder about this quandary).

And the list could go on.

Whoa, that’s a lot of questions!

Well, these and other similar questions actually come up again and again when I work with groups of professionals around the topic of networking. In fact, there seem to be more questions than certainty for many of the learners I meet. This surprised me at first, but it keeps coming up, so I thought I’d try to help clarify and demystify the practice of the business handshake.

In this three-part series on handshaking, I will attempt to answer some of the questions that abound about the practice of handshaking in business. In Part 1, we’ll review why we shake hands in the first place, what your handshake says about you, and consider whether we should keep shaking hands or quit this practice altogether. In Part 2, we’ll explore whether handshaking is culture-specific or universal. And in Part 3, we’ll examine what other options we have and a list of Do’s and Don’ts to help us all practice proper handshaking protocol (say that three times fast ;) ).

PART 1: Why do we shake hands and should we keep doing it?

Why do we shake hands?

You could Google the full history of handshaking and I won’t repeat it all there, but it seems like handshaking has been around for thousands of years and was originally meant to signify that we've come in peace and are unarmed (thanks, Matt Moore, for reminding me!). Obviously, the concern of your networking counterpart in the 21st century is not so much about whether you’re packing a gun or an ax, and a lot more about impression management. So why do we shake hands and what does it say about us? 

What does your handshake say about you?

Nowadays, shaking hands is a greeting and a way to show interest and professionalism. It signifies that you know the ‘rules of the game’ in business. And, whether you like it or not, your handshake says a lot about you. <<TWEETABLE! [Click to Tweet this out.] 

Handshakes can show interest in meeting the other person (or lack thereof).

Handshakes can demonstrate your confidence and assertiveness (or aggressiveness or passiveness).

Handshakes can create an impression of sincerity and trustworthiness (or untrustworthiness, or nervousness, or questionable motives).

And the list can probably go on.

Moreover, bad handshake (such as a ‘limp fish’ one, or a knuckle-crunching one, or a no-eye-contact one) makes a lasting impression. According to Joe Navarro, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and an expert on nonverbal communications and body language, “Negative emotions associated with a bad handshake stay with us for so long because it is stored in that part of the brain (amygdala / hippocampus) that helps us to assess for danger, the unhealthy, or anything that threatens us or makes us feel bad so we don’t have to learn it over and over.”

So should we keep shaking hands?

There are some in our western business culture who have started actively suggesting that we should stop the handshaking practice because it is unsanitary – shaking hands is a fantastic way to spread germs and illnesses. These opponents of the handshake (among them famous people who don’t shake hands like Donald Trump, Howie Mandel, and Howard Stern) suggest alternatives, like a fist bump or bowing. As my friend Michael Scott puts it, “it’s a public health nightmare.”

I get it. In fact, right after I finished facilitating a networking workshop the other day, a participant came to thank me and shook my hand. AS HE SHOOK MY HAND, he told me that he has a terrible cold and turned to sneeze or cough. YIKES! I was thinking, "thanks a lot bud!"

But as far as I can tell, the answer is yes - the handshake is here to stay for a while longer, and it’s definitely not yet culturally acceptable to avoid it due to being a germaphobe. So you’d better know how to do it right and keep doing it. And wash your hands, often (or carry some hand sanitizer and use it out of sight). ;)

Your Turn: What do you think? Should we let go of this ancient practice and adopt something new in its place?

P.S. Thanks to friends and colleagues from Facebook and LinkedIn who chimed in on and contributed to my crowdsourcing discussion during the research phase of this blog series: Carly Borders, Larry Straining, Kathy Reiffenstein, Marina Kraus, Marissa Zvaigenhaft, Lori Saitz, Jason Llorenz, Howard Walper, Michael Scott, Matt Moore, Kay Lybrand, ,Jeff Toister, Caner Akıncı, and Cortney Jonas Burnos.

P.P.S. Be sure to read Part 2, in which we’ll explore whether handshaking is culture-specific or universal, and Part 3 where I share specific Do’s and Don’ts for proper handshaking protocol.

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