Grip long, grip hard. That's what we're usually told from the moment we're old enough to greet someone with a handshake. It doesn't matter how much success we've had or what we're about to achieve, those few seconds in which we physically connect will reveal more about our character than any letters after our name or the title on a business card.

There might even be something to it. Research conducted by psychologists at the University of Alabama in 2000 tested the handshakes of 112 volunteers and compared the impressions they made with the psychological reports the volunteers completed afterward.

The researchers found that a "firm handshake" corresponded to personality traits that included extroversion and "openness to new experiences," while those with a weak handshake were more likely to show higher levels of shyness and anxiety on their psychological reports. Women generally had weaker handshakes than men, but women who shook hands firmly were rated positively. Even among women, a strong handshake suggests a strong personality.

But the factors that went into judging the handshake were complex. The "handshake judges" underwent a month of training in which they were told to look out for eight different characteristics:

  1. Completeness of grip
  2. Temperature
  3. Dryness
  4. Strength
  5. Duration
  6. Vigor
  7. Texture
  8. Eye contact

That sounds like a lot to bear in mind when all you want to do is shake someone's hand and find out what they do. The good news is that the characteristics tended to correlate, and for the judges they all boiled down to "firm" or "weak," a "positive impression" or a "weak impression." The volunteers who held on, shook with vigor and maintained eye contact also had a strong grip, warm hands, and didn't have sweaty palms. A firm handshake might have eight characteristics, but if you've got one, you've probably got them all.

But getting one if you're a nervous networker might not be easy. Dr. William Chaplin, who led the study, said people's handshakes remained the same across time and were always in line with their personality traits. Body language experts aren't so sure. Their advice suggests that even if you're shy and introverted, there are things you can do to show there's strength behind those social nerves.

Other than remembering to pull tight and hold on, they recommend keeping your body facing the person you're meeting to show that you're open and listening to them. Make sure you shake hands while standing, a rule that now applies to women as well as men, and keep that eye contact. Don't offer to shake hands with someone whose hands are obviously full, and if you're at a reception, hold your drink in your left hand. That will make sure it's not damp with condensation or ice cold when you do your meet and greet.

Then it's just a matter of smiling, standing straight... and gripping long and hard.  

Published on: Jul 21, 2016
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