Handshakes and First Impressions

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

(The following is the script I prepared for an on-air interview on the KING5 New Day show. I guessed what questions the host would ask me (in bold) and wrote out — and memorized! — my answers.  Although I appear to be talking extemporaneously and confidently on the video, this script reads like a transcript.)

Why is a handshake important? How can you put your best step forward with a handshake?
Your handshake is important because it’s often part of the first impression you make. We make first impressions in three or four seconds. You all already have a first impression of me – and I just sat down!
Your handshake transmits an enormous amount of nonverbal information about yourself.  It conveys who you are and what your intentions are, even before you say a word. As human beings, we pay more attention to nonverbal communication than what’s actually being said – so it can be critically important for that next job or that great first date to offer a good handshake.

What is some basic handshake etiquette?
That’s actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because the norms vary so much culture to culture. But, given that we are in Seattle, there is some basic handshake etiquette: one is we appreciate firm handshakes here. Grip the other person’s hand like you would pick up a baby: Not too soft – don’t drop the baby! And not too hard – don’t crush the baby! You can safely shake someone else’s hand with that pressure. We like eye contact. Friendly and open, not devouring or intimidating. One awesome eye contact tip: note the color of the other person’s eyes as you shake hands. That will help ensure that you’re paying attention and connecting. And be ready to shake hands, surreptitiously wipe it off and get ready to reach out.

Are there different kinds of handshakes for different situations?
That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is a yes, but. Your body language and what you say may be really different, in different circumstances, but your handshake is still going to be picking-up-baby firm and you’re going to make eye contact, regardless of whether you’re meeting your boyfriend’s mother or your future boss or someone you think you despise.

What should you do if you think you have a problem handshake? How should you prepare your handshake for a big meeting?
I firmly believe that self confidence is mostly about preparation. If you’re unsure about your handshake, if it’s not getting you the kind of reaction you want, practice on your friends. Get their unvarnished feedback. I guess a firm handshake is a good thing, but I recently shook hands with the sales person at a furniture store and my hand HURT afterwards. Someone needs to tell her not to hurt her clients! Good thing for her we’d already decided to buy those couches! If you’ve practiced your handshake and prepared what you’re going to say in those potentially fraught getting-to-know-you moments you will have a better ability to convey the person you want to be.

What about the verbal communication during a handshake?
If it’s an important meeting, I would coach you to prepare what to say. I think confidence has (almost) everything to do with preparation. I have my clients prep something I call The Five Dreadfuls before a networking meeting, and have found that this prep is highly relevant for dinner parties and life in general as well. These are those awful questions you’re dreading but know you’re going to get asked.
The first Dreadful, and its variations, goes hand in hand, so to speak, with the handshake: “So, Margaret, tell me about yourself.” Most people find that a dreadful question. It’s important to prepare a good story for a dreadful question like that, and practice and practice it until it’s Happy Birthday song memorized, so that your brain can be busy being smart and funny and improvising in a stressful moment, while your mouth tells the story and your hand and body language is under your control.
Sister dreadfuls would be: “Hey, what’s new?” and “What’s up?” even, “How are you?”

Is there a risk of overthinking your handshake?
Yes, definitely! I think there’s a difference between overthinking and preparing. You want it on muscle memory, not something your brain has to be actively involved in — because your brain will screw it up in a stressful moment! If you know you’re going to have to shake the hand of someone you dislike, or someone who is going to try to dominate you, practice the handshake you will be proud of.

How does gender play into handshakes?
As a woman, I find that handshakes can sometimes be awkward — do I — don’t I — are they? and particularly awkward if it’s not a business setting. I’ve never compared notes on this with other women, so maybe it’s just me. But as a rule of thumb, I always error on shaking hands all around, not doing some kind of awkward nod and smile.

How can a handshake translate into other aspects of your life when you’re meeting a new person or starting a new career?
I sometimes get clients in my office who want to know what their purpose in life is, what they’re on this Earth to do. I tell them I haven’t a clue. But I share with them the idea of a North Star, of the idea of this image of the person we each aspire to be. I like to joke that we are rarely that person, but we can try. And if we make decisions aligned with that North Star then we won’t go too far off course, and we can always adjust when we make mistakes, which we will. I’ve found it takes some of the pressure off of figuring out something paralyzing like a life’s purpose! In any case, this exercise has made me think about the client’s handshake as being aligned with their aspirational self — of the person they are trying to be.