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Expel the Hell out of the Handshake

Expel the Hell out of the Handshake

In many communication exchanges, before you even begin to speak, you’ll have to exercise some form of a handshake. This customary ritual in which two people grasp their right or left hands and make some sort of a shaking motion, can make some of us shake with trepidation.

That’s likely because over the years social and professional guides have complicated this simple gesture by issuing such stringent rules and decrees; many of us have now developed a particular insecurity I’ll call “handshake hesitation.” Our anxiety about our handshake competence drives us to agonize about what may be appropriate (or not) with regard to correct handshake etiquette. And since we’re often measured by our handshake proficiency, the pressure’s always on.

To diffuse our personal handshake hell, let’s simplify it. First, there are various customs surrounding handshakes, and they generally differ depending upon each respective culture. In Western societies most people shake with the right hand. But even within a particular culture, as with most forms of communication, greeting habits are situation-specific and can be modified depending on social status and relationship. (Subcultures use customized variations on traditional handshakes as might occur among certain sororities, fraternities, clubs or gangs.)

But just to simplify the “standard” handshake you might use at a party or during an introduction, there are a few basic behaviors to keep in mind:

  • While shaking hands, make every effort to maintain eye contact.
  • Shake the hands of the person you are being introduced to firmly but don’t get too carried away! You do not want your greeting gesture to seem overcompensating or overly enthusiastic.
  • But your handshake should not be too weak, cold or timid either. Practice ahead of time, making sure that your firm hold conveys confidence and warmth.
  • It is generally considered rude to reject a handshake, regardless of culture.

Author, speaker and celebrated etiquette expert, Letitia Baldrige, claims there are certain circumstances in which a handshake could be inappropriate or discouraged:

  • Refrain from shaking someone’s hand if yours is dirty. Baldrige says if someone extends a hand to you, simply smile and say, “You wouldn’t want to shake my hand right now,” or if you can locate a napkin quickly, say, “I’m sorry, let me get a napkin so I can offer you a clean hand.”
  • Refrain from shaking someone’s hand if you are afflicted with a skin disease. Poison ivy or an unsightly rash can be nothing short of a turn-off. Baldrige advises the use of a bandage or a scarf tied around the hand to indicate it is “unavailable.” If your left hand is not affected, feel free to extend that one.
  • Refrain from shaking someone’s hand if yours is sweaty or clammy, unless you first wipe it dry. If you’re prone to perspiring hands, keep napkins or wet wipes with you at all times; you never know when you are going to need that hand for a greeting! Contrary to what you might think, people appreciate seeing the person they are about to touch takes a moment to clean off her hand.
  • Refrain from shaking someone’s hand if you have a cold or a communicable disease. If you’re contagious, you probably should reconsider your social attendance. But if you simply must appear, be courteous enough to announce you wish to keep your bacteria to yourself and tell your prospective handshake recipient you’d like to spare her of whatever it is you’re afflicted with. Of course there is an appropriate way to say this without dispensing all the details of your dreaded illness. Casually state you haven’t been feeling your best yet did not want to miss the opportunity to meet; however you want to be careful not to pass along anything so you’ll opt to extend a nod instead of the traditional shake.

And who is responsible to stretch out her hand first during an initial meeting? “There is no protocol in the United States, Canada or Europe,” says Baldrige, “anyone – male, female, older, younger or senior should feel free to extend a friendly hand to initiate a handshake.

Don’t avoid a handshake just because you read too much into it and feel as though yours might not make the cut. This universal act of kindness is your first chance to present yourself to others as a savvy and likeable woman and you should use the opportunity to your benefit.