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

Handshaking: What is it good for? Part 3

[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 reviewed why we shake hands in the first place, what your handshake says about you, and considered whether we should keep shaking hands or quit this practice altogether. In Part 2, we explored whether handshaking is culture-specific or universal. Now, 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.]

PART 3: How to shake hands, the classic western business way

What other options do we have?

Lately, I've encountered a lot of hugging and even cheek-pecking in western business situations involving western business people. This is a fuzzy area with no clear answers about protocol, but I would probably not offer to hug a stranger (although I've been given hugs by strangers in business settings. Awkward!) It is, however, probably very appropriate with people you work with a lot and have developed a warm and friendly relationship with. In these cases, it might be that a handshake may just seem too cold and unfamiliar. My friends Lori Saitz and Howard Walper also noted this ambiguity. My suggestion: tread lightly with the hugs and when unsure, follow the other person's lead (which means perhaps giving a 2-3 second lag time between extending your hand to shake theirs and going for the grip - this gives you a bit of time to recover in case they clearly seem to be leaning into an embrace).

I loved some of the hilariously described options my friend and colleague Jeff Toister mentioned when he described his utter confusion about which option to choose, especially with his soccer buddies: “Do we shake hands? High five? Fist bump? Do we go from a hand-slap into a half-shake? Or, do we go from a hand shake into a bro hug? Fist bump into an explosion? If we do go fist bump into explosion, do we let it burn or put the fire out? These permutations create some awkward problems.” No kidding!

In fact, if you want a good laugh, check out this quirky video that deals with some of the typical, and more, erm, ‘boutique’ options, that are overwhelming us with added choices:

Learn the dos and don’ts of the classic western business handshake

As the evolution of handshaking continues, it’s safe to say that we need to know the basic protocol of the classic western business handshake. <<TWEETABLE! [Click to tweet it out!] 

Based on my research and experience, these are the main tips and techniques you should use and those to avoid:

DO extend your right arm fully toward the other person with your palm to the side, fingers together and thumb up. Smile and make eye contact.

DON’T keep your arm close to your body – this makes you seem like you’re not interested in shaking hands.

DON’T turn your palm to face down or up when you extend your arm.

DON’T spread your fingers or bend your hand – this will make it hard to overlap properly during the actual handshake.

DON’T avoid eye contact or look away.

DO touch web to web (the web is the skin between your thumb and index finger; yours should touch their) and your fingers can then wrap around the other person’s hand. All your fingers should point in the same direction and wrap around the other person’s hand.

DON’T let your index or middle finger tip touch the palm of the other person’s hand (like you’re tickling or scratching them) or the inside of their wrist (like you’re checking their pulse). Also, as consultant and speaker Jason Llorenz suggested, “don’t press your thumb Into that little, painful pressure point on top of my thumb."

DON’T cup your fingers inside the other’s palm or use your other hand to cup their hand (unless you’re a politician).

DO give a firm squeeze. “Weak, wimpy, limp handshakes are a total turn-off and communicate a lack of confidence” says public speaking expert Kathy Reiffenstein. 

DON’T rest your hand limply in their hand (like a dead fish).

DON’T squeeze too tight – you don’t want to crunch their bones or make their rings leave an indentation on the other fingers (this has happened to me – ouch!). Conference expert Howard Walper agrees: “Firm not painful” is his mantra.

DO keep your left arm by your side.

DON’T grab the other person’s hand, arm, elbow or shoulder.

DO pump once or twice and release.

DON’T pump too much or keep holding for more than 2-3 seconds.

It’s important to know the Do’s and Don’ts because first impressions count, and sometimes you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. But to put things in perspective, I like what my Turkish colleague Caner Akıncı poignantly suggested: while non-verbal behaviors go a long way in creating a first impression, “if you spend quality time with [the other person] then body language or handshake styles may lose effect and the actual business knowhow or agendas may take their place.” In other words, first impressions are super important but they don’t trump your actual interaction quality once you get past them. Of course, the point is that there are no guarantees you’ll get the chance if you fail the test of first impressions.


While the practice of shaking hands in business settings is extremely common, it still mystifies a lot of us. The more culturally diverse our business counterparts become in this ‘global village’ of ours, the more complications we experience as a result of the mix of norms and cultural beliefs we bring to the interaction. And there are even those who say it’s a practice that is unsanitary and whose time has come. Yet, the handshake remains the key non-verbal greeting (in addition to eye contact and smiling) in western business settings and we will keep using it for the foreseeable future, so we better know how to do it properly. Use the tips and ideas shared in this blog post to get you on the right path, and keep the conversation going to see how best to keep this practice evolving to stay relevant and purposeful.

In fact – let’s get the conversation going right now – add your thoughts and reactions in the comments below!

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.

Sign up to my free weekly newsletter and get more actionable tips and ideas for making yourself a better leader and a more effective communicator! It’s very short and relevant with quick tips, links, and news about leadership, communication, and self-development. Sign up now!

Also, subscribe to my podcast, The TalentGrow Show, on iTunes to always be the first in the know about new episodes of The TalentGrow Show! http://apple.co/1NiWyZo

You Might Also Like These Posts:

The secret of networking that you can use to make networking less awkward for everyone

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

Handshaking: What is it good for? [Part 2 of 3]