Handshakes: An Ancient Ritual in the Modern Business World

November 15, 2012 at 2:43 pm 1 comment

By Loren Shealy 

In the United States, the “standard” form of initial communication between two people consist of “Hi, my name is___” and a handshake. In the business world, though, the handshake is an essential aspect of communication beyond the first meeting. So, why do Americans covet the handshake and why do businessmen and women use this type of communication on a daily basis? In a study led by the Beckham Institute, Florin Dolcos and Department of Psychology postdoctoral research associate Sanda Dolcos found “a handshake preceding social interaction enhanced the positive impact of approach and diminished the negative impact of avoidance behavior on the evaluation of social interaction.” In the 5th Century BC, Greek soldiers first shook hands after battle to declare ceasefire. 2500 years later, the tradition of the handshake still remains. Why are handshakes still prevalent in the modern society?

The research findings on handshakes by the Beckham Institute

The FMRIs of 18 men and 18 women indicate that the “reward processing” region of a person’s brain shows greater activity when watching two people introduce themselves with a handshake versus without a handshake.

  • A handshake increases the likelihood of a positive interaction between two people and decreases the chance of a misunderstanding.
  • A firm, confident, and friendly handshake will lead to a positive interaction.

The Business Meeting

Businessmen and women meet every day for a variety of reasons: conduct interviews, sign deals, promote employees, fire employees, create strategies, sell products, etc. Despite the variety of motives behind business meetings, all meetings have one thing in common – they begin and end with a handshake. Though business teams may meet dozens of times in one week, the handshake remains as the proper introduction before and after every meeting. Beyond the importance of handshakes for salutation purposes, a handshake indicates that two people are entering an agreement and are willing to “listen and respond to what the other person has to say.” What kinds of handshakes create an appropriate introduction and environment of trust?

Appropriate Handshake:

  • Firm grip
  • Straight arm
  • Not too long but not too short (move hand up and down two or three times)
  • Strong eye contact

Inappropriate Handshake:

  • Weak grip
  • Limp arm
  • Too quick or too long (more or less than two or three up and down movements)
  • Lack eye contact

The Interview Handshake

When a person walks into an interview, one of the first things he or she does is shake the interviewer’s hand. This initial interaction is crucial. In an interview, the interviewee wants to project his/her confidence, knowledge, and skill to the interviewer as soon as possible. The first step in relaying these traits is an “appropriate” handshake. A firm handshake tells an interviewer that a candidate is confident and eager to demonstrate how he or she is the best candidate for the job. A weak, timid handshake will reduce the strength of a candidate because it indicates fear, lack of preparation, and lack of confidence. One crucial aspect of any handshake is eye contact. Eye contact is critical because it indicates trust. When an interviewer meets twenty candidates for one job, trust is a vital aspect of each interview. Interviewers sometimes have no way of knowing whether a job candidate is telling the truth about their experiences. A good handshake with solid eye contact, though, can remove doubt and establish trust.

The International Handshake

In the United States, a handshake is the standard form of introduction between two people and is an integral part of business communication. In countries like Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, India and even Europe, though, there are different protocols for introductions and business interactions, and handshakes are not always appropriate.

Africa: In Africa, soft handshakes are common and may last for a longer than “two to three up and down movements.”

Middle East: In the Middle East, the style of introduction will vary depending on location. Jewish people shake hands as a standard greeting. Arabic people, though, greet with a hug and kiss.

Asia: In Asia, handshakes are common but one must avoid direct eye contact, bow as a sign of respect, and not grasp hands for too long.

Australia: In Australia, handshakes are firm and quick. Women rarely shake hands with one another and must extend their hand to men.

Europe: In Europe, the style of handshake is similar to the American style. Europeans, though, consider handshakes more formal than Americans. Europeans may not feel that a handshake is the appropriate introduction between people who meet on a regular basis.

Handshakes are an integral part of business communication. When working in an international setting, though, one must know how to interact with people from another country. Business deals can fall apart when cultural differences cause communication misunderstandings. Thus, to excel in the international business world one must understand how to shake someone’s hand in the appropriate manner (or not depending on the country) in order to enter into a conversation of understanding and trust.

Further readings on the power of handshakes:


Entry filed under: Cultural Communication, Interpersonal.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Gina Barbato  |  November 20, 2012 at 10:18 am

    My dad has been telling me about the importance of a good handshake since I can remember. I think it was great that you chose to blog about this initial form of contact between two people, especially in regards to communication in the business world. I have heard my employers admit to judging people based on their handshakes from the start. However, they did note that sometimes it is not even intentional. I agree. Even when I am meeting people outside of the workplace, if I receive an especially weak handshake, I will be immediately turned off. I think its amazing how something as small as a handshake can actually determine someone’s perception of you before you even get the chance to introduce yourself. It seems that handshakes can be true testament to actions speaking louder than words.


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