A handshake is how we communicate our first impressions at work. They’re how other people take our measure, and they tell others whether we’re confident or faking it. (Hello, sweaty hands).
We often don’t think about the handshake as a complex set of behavioral tasks, but Denise Dudley, clinical psychologist and author of Work It! Get in, Get Noticed, Get Promoted, does and she has broken this critical task for career success into the smallest components anyone of us can do.
“It’s tactile because I’m going to be touching you,” Dudley told Ladders. “It’s visual because you’re going to be looking at me and assessing my face and eye contact. And it’s also auditory because I’m going to be saying my name to you or at least saying the words, ‘hi or hello.’ It’s a bunch of information condensed down to just a few seconds of interaction. It’s how we do a quick assessment of who the other person is.”
Here is the definitive general guide Dudley has studied on how you should handshake in the workplace in the United States:
No matter who’s who, older or younger, the best way to initiate a handshake is to get on your feet and stand in front of the person, if your body is able, Dudley believes.
“It honors the person, it’s the polite thing to do. But more importantly, it puts you in the proper alignment to shake hands,” she said.
You then need to have your shoulders squared off to the person you want to shake hands with, so that you are facing them. When your shoulders are aligned, so are your sympathies.
Aim your right hand toward their right hand and point your thumb towards their shoulder, so it keeps your palm open. As soon as the web of your skin touches theirs, you close your hand around theirs.
Here’s the step where people trip up and make bad handshakes. People can wrongly perform the bone-crusher and squeeze too hard or they can imitate a dead fish and limply let their hands be taken.
A strong handshake, or a weak one, are not coincidences. Instead, they’re reliable body-language signals that tell us what people’s intentions are.
Bone-crushing handshakes are an aggressive action that happen when people want to dominate you or want to remind you that they are more important than you.
Dead-fish handshakes can be equally as bad because they make you a non-participant, and create the impression that you have no personal agency and that you don’t want to be doing this. They also make the person whose hand you’re shaking feel as if you don’t take them seriously and don’t want to commit to anything.
The best, perfect, “hire me” handshake is to close your hand around their hand and “squeeze firmly but gently,” Dudley said. She recommends being on the gentler side if you notice the person is wearing rings on his or her hand.
“The pump needs to be executed from the elbow,” Dudley said. “We don’t do a pump, an upward and downward motion, from our wrist because that is jarring, and it looks weird and it feels weird. And we don’t want to do it from the shoulder.”
If you initiate a handshake from your shoulder, the seesaw action will yank people off of their feet, and you will come off as a domineering jerk.
Instead, the shoulder should stay stable as the elbow moves.
In the U.S., workers typically pump their hands three times on average, Dudley said, while in several Asian and South American cultures, the pumping hand can come with a slight bow.
This is a requirement. You must give people your undivided attention in this one moment. “When we go for a handshake, we look directly in the eyes of the person we’re shaking hands with–and nowhere else. It’s a rule that can’t be broken,” Dudley said. “You don’t look at the next person you’re going to shake hands with, you don’t look down, you look right in their eyes.”
In countries outside of the U.S., you may need to look down as a sign of respect, however. In Japan, infamously, too much eye contact can be read as a sign of aggression.
Some sort of pleasant facial expression is needed to turn a good handshake into a great one. Smiling is an easy accompaniment to get this across, but you should “at least look pleasant, if you can’t have a smile,” Dudley said.
This too has cultural implications: Smiles are rare in the U.K. and France when meeting someone for the first time, and in fact a big open smile there makes people think you’re not that bright or you’re easily fooled. Instead, keep an open, attentive, neutral face, which should work in nearly all countries.
A handshake is not a silent ballet. While all of these unseen behaviors are happening in seconds, you have to keep in mind to say some sort of greeting or if it’s the first handshake, an introduction to who you are.
There are advanced maneuvers like gently touching your other hand on top of your shaking hand as a sign of affection, but you should only do this after you’ve met someone.
Then there are people who go too far: People who take their left hand and clamp it over their right hand that’s shaking yours are not your friend–they want to make you feel trapped.
Here’s a harsh truth about humanity: Outside of family or very close friends, we touch people more when we think we have more power than they do.
“If you look at who touches whom in the world, children get touched a lot more than adults, women get touched more than men, students get touched more than teachers, patients get touched more than doctors. So in other words, who touches whom is a function of who believes they have the power in the interaction,” Dudley said. “We don’t want to ever touch people in a way that’s non-reciprocal, where they don’t feel free to touch us back.”
That means that when we touch other people, especially at work, we need to make sure it’s in a way that they feel comfortable touching us back.
High-fives and fist bumps are creative handshakes that are acceptable in the workplace because they can be reciprocated: “They’re simply showing who my brothers and sisters and peeps are. It’s a cultural bonding thing,” Dudley said.
Your supervisor patting you on the back for a job well done, however, is a non-reciprocal touch. You can’t pat him on the back too, after all. This interaction, though well-meaning, is non-reciprocal because there’s no way you the employee can pat them back in this power dynamic. Whether or not your touch can be reciprocated is the overarching distinction that should guide what is acceptable and not at work.
Those rules should help you master the handshake that gets you the job. Go forth and practice.
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