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Volume 9, Issue 37;   September 16, 2009: The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: Part I

The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: Part I

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In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
A Roman coin from the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva

A Roman coin from the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva (8 November 30 - 25 January 98). The reverse side depicts a handshake. It's reasonable to suppose that the custom in some form far predates even the Romans, but the details of how the custom was observed in the cultures that have used it are sometimes difficult to discover. No doubt the custom will evolve in the future. All of this reminds us that even though the details of our own customs are very specific, they do change. Those who observe the custom differently from ourselves are contributing to that gradual, inevitable change, but they are not wrong. They are just observing the custom differently. Photo courtesy CNG coins.

In-person business greetings vary around the world. There are nods, bows, kisses, hugs, handshakes, and many more. In the United States, the customary greeting is a handshake.

There's no one right way to shake hands. We each shake hands in our own unique ways. Wherever we learned it, our teachers are all different. Men and women are different too.

Even though we all do it differently, any culture that has a handshake custom has an "ideal" handshake, and it attaches meanings to slight deviations from the ideal. Here's Part I of some guidelines for handshakes, as the custom is practiced in business in the USA.

It's a right hand thing
Unless you have a disability, or your right hand is obviously occupied in some way, the right hand is the rule. Extending your left hand can be seen as insulting.
Prepare
If you expect to be shaking hands, keep your right hand free and remove your gloves. Having to shift items to your left hand while your partner waits can seem disrespectful to some, and might even feel embarrassing to you.
Stand
If you're seated when a handshake is imminent, rise. Some feel that this applies only to men, but that's changing, especially in the business setting. Still, in some microcultures, ladies need not stand.
Make eye contact
Shaking hands requires eye contact and attention. Not a glare or stare, but caring attention. Looking away can mean, "I don't really care about you."
Even though we all do it differently,
any culture that has a handshake
custom has an "ideal" handshake
Stand far enough away
If you're too close, your extended hand will invade your partner's personal space, which in the U.S. is about three-quarters of an arm's length.
Know who should offer first
Some women feel that courtesy demands that a man wait for a woman to extend her hand, though in business, it's now rare for women to be treated differently. The powerful — both men and women — often expect the less powerful to offer first.
Say your name
Introduce yourself, even if someone else has already done so. All you need do is say your name, beginning just before you extend your hand.
Say your partner's name
Toward the end of the handshake, say your partner's name. Speaking it will help you remember it, and demonstrates that you're paying attention and that you care. "Nice to meet you" is optional and usually welcome.
Point your thumb upward
Some people shake hands with palm pointing slightly downward. For many people, this is insulting, because it places them in a subordinate position.

If you've grown up in the United States, and you shake hands with someone who was reared elsewhere, you might notice deviations from these customs. Interpreting those deviations as if they were intended to give offense would probably be a mistake. We'll continue next time with more guidelines and deviations.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: Part II  Next Issue

Reader Comments

Illysa Izenberg, Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University
Many people are unaware that religiously-observant Jewish and Muslim people do not shake the hand of someone of the opposite gender (the religion of other person is not relevant — only the gender).
I've spoken with some men in sales positions who were highly insulted when they reached out to shake a woman's hand and it was not reciprocated. I've counseled them to simply say, "oops, my mistake," smile, and move on. In their own minds, they have to let it go. They can say to themselves, "very few things that other people say and do are about me" so as to learn not to take these things personally.
I've counseled the religious people to simply say to someone of the opposite gender who reaches their hand out, "I'm glad to meet you and I'm sorry I can't shake your hand." A smile and clear statement goes a long way to eliminating discomfort.
To eliminate discomfort, we all should take note of the other person's likelihood to avoid shaking hands. A woman in a head-covering or a man in a kippah are clear signs. For religiously-observant Jewish women and Muslim men, the signs may be more subtle as many of them do not wear head-coverings that are obvious. You may be able to tell by the way they are dressed or other cues.
There are no foolproof measures to ensure no one is insulted. I once asked a man whom I was meeting for the first time and who self-identified as Muslim, "shall we shake hands?", and he was annoyed I'd asked. That's okay — the next person might appreciate being asked.
Given the lack of absolutes, I think it's best to let any faux-pas go. Be clear about your own boundaries and apologize briefly if you've overstepped another person's.

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