How To Improve Your Handshake to Make a Stellar First Impression

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woman shaking hand at business meeting

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Working Mother
Working Mother
May 21, 2024 at 11:6AM UTC

Everyone knows that—for better or for worse—a handshake is integral to creating a solid first impression. So how's yours? Moreover, do women and men shake hands in different ways? And if so, should there be a difference?

"Women often shake hands differently than men, but their handshakes should not be significantly different," says body language expert Patti Wood. "I've been shaking hands with all my audience members—hundreds of people a week—for decades. About a third of the working women in my audiences, even C- suite executives, give a wimpy and or partial handshake—they put the tips of their fingers out and shake with their fingers instead of giving a good, full, palm-to-palm handshake.”

It may not seem like a big deal, but Wood says that a fingers-only handshake can put you at an automatic disadvantage. "If you're too meek, you lose power and equality with men and don’t make a full, trust-filled connection with men or women," she says. Even if you think you're not one of the wimpy ones, Wood suggests soliciting handshake feedback, because people with weak handshakes usually don't know it.

Another way to project power? "For women, the secret is to initiate," she says. "Not everyone knows that you want a handshake, much less a good one. Make eye contact early and put out your hand even as far as four feet away. When you offer your hand, place the fingers downward and scoop up into the handshake, and get full palm-to-palm contact. If you put our your hand with the fingers straight out it allows wimpys to grab just the end of your fingers. Instead, scoop up in and get the web between your thumb and forefinger and their web to make contact first, then close your fingers.”

Here's Wood's recipe for the perfect handshake.

Rise, if seated. That rule used to apply to men only; now women should rise as well. If you remain seated when someone is introduced to you, the communication of personal indifference is unmistakable, not to mention offensive. The only approved exception to rising to shake hands is if you are eating. If that is the case, you can wait to shake hands until after you're done.

Walk up to the person with confidence. Keep your head level and your hands at your side. Be sure to keep your hands out of your pockets. Research indicates that we don't trust people with hands in their pockets. Make sure your right hand is free to shake hands. Always shift any purses, briefcases, papers, beverages or cell phones to your left hand before you begin the greeting.

Smile briefly. Don't overdo it. If you smile too long or too much, you'll be perceived as submissive. An over-extended smile can create negative impressions, such as “overeager,” “easily manipulated” or “not intelligent.” Women need to take special care not to over-extend the smile as it can reduce personal power and can even be misinterpreted as a sexual come on.

Make eye contact. There is a substantial amount of research showing that good eye contact increases feelings of trust. Don't stare, but don't look at your shoes. Making eye contact as you approach lets the person know you want to interact.

Face the person heart-to-heart. When you stand at an angle and don’t face the person squarely, you are sending the symbolic message that you are not being straight and open. You may look as if you need to protect yourself, you do not like the other person or you feel the need to reduce the intimacy or the duration of the interaction.

Mind your hands. If you have a problem with clammy hands, don’t forget to wipe them on your handkerchief or tissue before you shake hands. And, at social functions, carry any iced drinks in your left hand, so your right will not be cold and damp when a handshake is called for.

Strike out your right hand and arm across your body to your right. The forcefulness and confidence of the move lets the other person know you not only want to shake hands, you look forward to it. Make sure the arm goes fully outward, as an arm held closely to the body indicates timidity and lack of confidence.

Place your hand straight up with the thumb on top. The thumb on top is symbolic; it indicates you want equality in your interaction. No one person will dominate. You will respect the other person and expect him or her to respect you.

Stretch out and open your hand between the thumb and the first finger. That makes it so you can slide your hand easily into the web of the other person's hand. Make sure the rest of your fingers are together with your palm flat rather than cupped so palm can touch palm.

Make palm-to-palm contact. Open palms symbolically show a desire to be open and honest in your interactions; not giving a person contact with your palm in a handshake is read subliminally as a lack of openness and honesty. It’s why we hate a wimpy handshake. It makes the other person nervous and he or she may wonder what you are hiding.

Once full contact is made, wrap your fingers around the other person’s. Put your thumb down gently, lock thumbs and squeeze the hand firmly. The pressure should be equal or at the most slightly more than the pressure you are given. Never grip the other’s hand in a contest of macho handshaking to see who can hold the hardest or longest. You want to have a firm handshake but the rule is to match the pressure or add no more than two steps in pressure.

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