Workplaces have changed drastically over the decades but one form of professional currency has seemed to keep its value: the handshake.
The effect of a handshake is two-fold. First, it tends to be the platform for the other party’s initial estimation of you – the power of a first impression comes into play here.
Second, a handshake is a form of non-verbal communication, which, experts say, tells a lot more about who you are than what you say.
“The non-spoken word is such a big part of communication,” said Dr. Christa Arnold, an associate professor of communication at the University of North Florida. “Touch is so significant. It talks louder than words.”
While the handshake is the end-all for your employer or potential employer’s estimation of your character and personality, it does present the dual-edge scenario in which you can help or hurt your standing.
Because the shaking of hands holds this importance, it has been the subject of all types of valuation across the decades. Time has generated truths and falsehoods about the handshake, a few of which our experts examined.
Fact: Shaking Hands Is Your Chance to Express Confidence, Respect and Happiness
Arnold says the handshake is such a powerful interactive tool because it involves, especially in the workplace, elements of power, reputation and confidence.
“How you touch someone, whether it’s a shoulder tap or a handshake, is going to speak volumes about you and the perception of you,” she said. “That’s how the handshake is so important and touch is so important.”
Arnold pointed out the handshake holds so much value because it’s actually comprised of three different forms of body language: hands touching, eye contact and facial expressions.
Each one of these gestures says something about who you are.
The handshake, she said, is an avenue to express your confidence. The amount of eye contact you make with the person with whom you’re shaking indicates respect.
And, she said, your facial cues express how happy (or unhappy) you are to be in the particular work scenario.
Fiction: The Stronger the Handshake, the Better the Impression
Lest you find yourself thinking handshakes should be brute and soaked in the bourbon-laden mystique of Mad Men, experts say an overpowering handshake is never a good thing.
Dr. Jude Miller Burke, a psychologist, author and leadership/executive coach, said you’ve done something wrong when you shake someone’s hand “and leave them wincing.”
“I think it’s really obvious when someone is doing that on purpose,” Miller Burke said. “I think it shows a lack of self-confidence when you overdo it with the handshake.”
Arnold agrees on this point, noting that a forceful handshake can also exhibit arrogance.
“Coming in too strong is as big of a mistake as coming in submissive, in my opinion,” she said. “People don’t like cocky, either. They like for you to be confident but not cocky. There’s a bit of a fine line there.”
She went on to say that you have to find a balance between timidity and being commandeering.
“You don’t want to be full of yourself, but you don’t want to be in a position where you’re unsure,” she said.”
Fiction: Handshakes With Women Should Be Treated Differently
Gone are the days when social rules demanded that women offer a delicate hand during a handshake.
“In the past 50 years, there’s been a big gender switch as it pertains to handshakes. It used to be that women were supposed to give a light, soft handshake. We were supposed to be gentle,” Arnold said. “That has changed.”
While some workplaces may be mired in antiquated treatment of women in the workplace, men and women should always come into a situation with a firm, confident handshake.
Also, Burke said, men meeting a female who is their senior in age or position should never assume they can add a shoulder touch to a handshake when there is no pre-existing relationship.
“One mistake men make is that, even though a woman is their senior in age or status, a man will be overly familiar with his physical gestures and that can be really disrespectful,” she said. “In that situation, what you have is a younger man who is trying to assert dominance … it’s arrogant.”
Fact: Weakness Equates to Timidity
Arnold’s final point about handshake facts and fiction is a good one. A limp handshake never bodes well for anyone.
“It would tell me, and, again, I’m saying this based on literature and my own experience,” she said, “that you don’t feel very confident and that you’re a little unsure of the situation.”
A weak handshake could tell your future employer or your boss that “you’re not coming in as an equal; you’re coming in as submissive.”
The risk of giving a weak handshake isn’t so much the in-the-moment failure as it is an indication that you may not be ready for the job.
“You don’t want to portray a submissive role when you’re trying to get hired,” Arnold said. “You want to come in feeling you’re confident in your ability.”
Worried About Your First Impression? Practice & Remember That Your Handshake Isn’t Everything
As embarrassing as it may sound, both our experts confirmed that the best way to nail your introductory handshake is to practice.
Take some time in the day s leading up to your interview to stand in front of a mirror, extend a hand and make eye contact with yourself. Practice your verbal introductions. Examine your facial expressions.
The goal is to present yourself as someone who wants the job, has the confidence to get it and is happy to be interviewing for the position.,
And remember, while the handshake is still important, it’s not the sole factor by which you’ll be judged.
“I don’t think it’s ever been just about the handshake. It’s about the person you present,” Burke said. “Your body language. Your attire. Your eye contact. Your facial expressions. Hopefully, you feel comfortable and authentic enough about yourself to be who you really are.”
J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter at HighYa.com, where he covers credit cards, credit scores, student loans and more. He is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest.