Grasping the art of handshaking

Photo by Alex Trkulja
Photo by Alex Trkulja

Some have firm ones, while others have flimsy ones. Others are too long, while some are too hard. Many are just right. Handshakes — chances are we have all experienced one.

But how did the handshake come about?

As Darryl Burgwin, communications professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, explained, the handshake is a popular and an equalizing form of greeting behaviour. The handshake was made popular by American business practices.

“The handshake has been around for a while,” said Burgwin. According to Burgwin there is even ancient Greek art depicting two people shaking hands.

There are theories that suggest it was a way to show that you weren’t armed and it could have been a part of solidifying a contract, or promise. Today, most people associate the handshake with a formal introduction between two people.

Often when people shake hands, there is a judgment about the firmness of a handshake. Burgwin explained that the firmness of a handshake could vary from culture to culture. In our Western cultures, it is expected by many to have a nice firm handshake. However in Mexico, for example, a gentler handshake is considered polite.

Even though handshakes are very common within our society, many find themselves messing up this apparently simple act. Often people will either squeeze too hard or too soft while shaking someone’s hand.

An idea that Burgwin suggested behind the reasoning why people often mess up the handshake is that there are two people involved — everyone can have his or her own idea of the proper way to shake someone’s hand.

Burgwin also brought up when asked about why young people have a tendency to not properly shake hands is the lack of experience. When young people enter the work force, they often have not had a chance to shake hands with others on a professional level.

Not only can the actual grasp of the hand be awkward, but also the length of the handshake can be uncomfortable. Many have probably experienced a handshake that lasted too long and wondered if who they were greeting was going to give their hand back.

“If you hold too long it means you are trying to control the person in a certain way,” Burgwin said.

For those who are entering the workforce and want to properly shake hands with another person, Burgwin recommended that the handshake should only be three to five pumps long, up and down.

Since handshakes are so common in our society, it is often considered rude to another if someone were to reject a handshake.

“It’s a greeting behaviour. Someone is offering a social acknowledgement of your existence in a positive way and if you turn that down, you are rejecting them in a sense,” Burgwin  said.

He went on to say that in today’s world, it is becoming more and more common for people to reject handshakes for hygienic reasons and have started to replace them with greetings like fist bumps.

Fist bumps are now becoming a more common and popular way of greeting people.  Fist bumping began somewhere around the late ‘60s to early ‘70s originating in sporting events.

Handshakes, like people, can vary by region and personality. The best way not to mess up the handshake, as Burgwin explained, is to read the situation and the person who you are shaking hands with and adjust your behaviour accordingly. Like anything else, the more you shake hands the better you will likely become.

Graphic by Andreas Patsiaouros
Graphic by Andreas Patsiaouros

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