Let's talk about handshakes. It's literally the easiest thing to get right in business or social settings, yet so many people habitually mess up their handshakes. So it's clear we need a quick refresher course on how to shake hands.

This comes up because handshakes are in the news. There's Trump's North Korea summit, that thing with the French president, and the episode when LeBron James left the last game of the NBA Finals with four minutes still on the clock, and walked around congratulating the Golden State Warriors on their win.

Below, we'll cover why we shake hands to begin with, along with the basic things to do and avoid. And if you really want to get this right, since you're only half of a handshake, you will also want to check out Part 2: What to do when you're shaking hands with a bad hand-shaker

1. Why we shake hands

Handshakes go back a very long time--at least to the 5th Century B.C. in ancient Greece. The accepted origin story is that it was originally intended to demonstrate that people weren't holding weapons. Now, it's just an accepted ritual--one that you need to make sure you're getting right.

2. If you're going to shake hands, shake hands

People say the most stressful part of shaking hands is the brief second when you're not sure whether your handshake will be accepted. So just do it--undermine the anxiety by being the person who always offers his or her hand. In that split second you send a signal that you're confident and likable.

3. Don't shake hands without doing something else at the same time

Handshakes are a form of communication, but to be most effective they need to be paired with at least one form of communication. So make eye contact, offer a smile, speak up with a greeting. "Nice to meet you," is enough. Also, don't act distracted while you're shaking hands; that sends a worse signal than just standing awkwardly and doing nothing.

4. Don't be a jerk when you shake hands

There's nothing more pathetic than the guy who has to squeeze your hand super-hard when shaking hands, in a transparent attempt to suggest he (and it's almost always a "he") is somehow dominant over you. Don't be that jerk. Just a firm, friendly grip will do. (We'll talk about this one a lot in Part 2.)

5. A good handshake has three pumps

That's it. Three pumps, maybe give or take one--two at the most. But if you hands are joined and bouncing up and down more than five times, it starts to feel like something weird is going on. Rule: If you're wondering if the handshake has gone on long enough, it has.

6. Stand up when you shake hands

Men stand up when they shake hands and women sit down, right? Wrong. That's an anachronism from a time when women also couldn't vote or have bank accounts. Ditch it. Regardless of your gender, stand up to shake hands unless it's physically awkward (like if you're sitting at a crowded table and you'd have to push other people out of the way).

7. Have clean, dry hands 

I feel like this one is obvious, but then again: that's why we're here. The only exception I can see to this rule is when you're shaking hands at the end of an athletic event. But even there, make a show of wiping your hands on your shirt or something.

We could keep going, for sure. A single article can't cover all situations. Should you hug or shake hands? Should you go with the traditional, classic handshake, or a half-embrace, or a fist bump? The best advice there is just to go with what feels most authentic and natural in the moment.

But bottom line, messing up a handshake is a truly unforced error that makes whatever happens next awkward at best. So do it, get it done with, and move on. And don't forget that you're only half of the handshake; so you need to be prepared to react to bad handshakers, too.

Published on: Jun 10, 2018
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