The art of the professional handshake
By Matthew Kneller | January 31, 2020
You have probably heard the phrase, “first impressions are everything.” This is especially true when it comes to first meetings in professional situations. As a college student, you may make first contact with a potential employer at networking opportunities such as job fairs, conferences, or professional seminars—or at a face-to-face interview for a job or internship.
There are a number of basic etiquette behaviors that are expected in these first meetings.
One of them is a good handshake.
The handshake is a versatile communication tool, and it plays an important role in this first meeting by initiating a relationship and making a concrete interpersonal connection. Communication through touch, or “haptic communication” as it is known by those of us who study human communication, is powerful and meaningful when it comes to forming relationships and others’ perceptions of you.
A bad handshake says as much about you as a good one does, so you want to get your handshake right.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- It’s about contact. You may have been taught that you should have a strong, firm handshake. That is not wrong, and a weak or delicate handshake detracts from your case as a confident and energetic employee. However, this focus on “pressure” misses the point. A good handshake is about the contact. You should have plenty of palm-to-palm contact with your handshake partner. The “web” between your thumb and pointer fingers should meet the thumb web of your partner. Wrap your fingers around just a bit—but avoid squeezing. It is the contact that makes the handshake. Extend your right hand, even if you are left-handed. And take your other hand out of your pocket.
- Avoid overdoing it. Different situations call for different degrees of handshakes. A brief handshake of about three seconds is almost always preferred for a first meeting. A longer handshake is appropriate if you are sealing a business deal, seeing someone you haven’t seen in a while, thanking someone for going above and beyond, or showing your respect to someone who has earned it.
- Be aware of your body language. The complete handshake action actually employs a number of other communication signals along with it—both nonverbal and verbal. The most important is eye contact. Look your handshake partner directly in the eyes as you shake hands. Be aware of your facial expression and body language. Stand straight, hold your head up, and turn your full body towards your partner. Smile and introduce yourself by saying your name as you shake hands. It is also good practice to repeat your handshake partner’s name: “It is really nice to meet you, Tom.” This helps commit the person’s name to your memory.
- Who should go first? In many cases, the person you are meeting will extend a hand first. This is often the case in job interviews, as it is a common convention that the person with more authority or seniority will initiate the handshake. There is also a somewhat old-fashioned convention that a man should wait for a woman to initiate the handshake. You may even hear that women should not shake hands at all. These rules can be confusing—what do you do? Go ahead and extend your hand with confidence and sincerity, regardless of your gender or position of authority. You are much more likely to botch your first impression by avoiding a handshake than by taking the initiative.
- Be prepared to adapt and improvise. The most appropriate time to extend your hand is when you first make contact. Once your meeting or conversation is already underway, it is awkward to say, “Oh, I forgot to shake your hand.” If you forget, save your handshake for the exit. Also, sometimes people will opt to not shake your hand. You will see it in their face and body language as you begin to move in. There are many possible reasons, such as worries about passing a cold or flu bug. Do not force the handshake or take it personally—and please do not offer a fist bump in its place in a job interview.
- Be aware of cultural differences. People outside the U.S. may follow different guidelines for when handshakes are appropriate, and some cultures don’t rely on the handshake at all. The firm handshake and direct eye contact that is expected in the U.S. could be considered rude if you travel abroad. If you are planning to travel to another country, the best source of advice is someone who has spent some time in that country. Be careful about Google searching for advice before your big trip, since you will find a lot of misinformation. Doing your research and adapting to a different culture shows respect and consideration, and it demonstrates how much the interaction means to you.
Finally, remember that a handshake is the very first step in forming a professional relationship with someone. While you may never see the person again, the individual could also end up being your employer, mentor, advocate, reference, or friend. Your goal is to set a good starting point for what could be an important and life-changing connection in your professional life.
For more career and interview tips, visit AU’s Center for Student Success.
Matthew Kneller is director of general education and associate professor of communication at Aurora University.