The Mechanics of a Handshake, and Why It Matters

Greetings and even handshakes may vary across cultures and contexts. The goal of any professional interaction should be to make a connection with the other person and demonstrate courtesy and respect.

How you greet someone with a handshake is one of the most important steps in making introductions. As first impressions are made, your handshake offers a foundation for trust and informs someone about whether they may want to continue to build a relationship with you.

When first meeting a person, stand, smile, maintain eye contact, and extend your right hand. Most guidelines for distance suggest being about three feet away from the other person to be respectful of their personal space. You do not need to be any closer than necessary to reach the person’s hand, but you also do not want to put unnecessary distance between you and the other person.

As you extend your hand, your thumb should be pointed up. Keep your thumb up and your other fingers extended firmly outward, or even bowed back slightly rather than curled inward. When you hit the purlicue (or webspace) of the other person’s hand, then it is time for a firm palm-to-palm grasp. The purlicue space is the location between the thumb and index finger. One or two pumps is sufficient.

Sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

A bad handshake will occur when someone attempts to shake hands before both people have had a chance to get palm-to-palm. A firm closure around someone’s fingers, when they are wearing a ring, or they have arthritis, could hurt them. When you close firmly on a person’s palm, you avoid a limp handshake and chance of injury.

If you are prone to cold hands, warm them up by rubbing your hands together just before you enter the spaces where you will be meeting people. If you have sweaty palms, wash and dry them off in advance. Talcum powder may help as well as using a moisture wicking handkerchief you keep tucked away in your pocket. Keep in mind you are much more aware of the perspiration and temperature of your hand than those you are meeting for the first time.

At receptions, you will need to eat or drink, but you cannot do both because your right hand must always be available to meet others. If you are already seated at a table and someone is just arriving, everyone, regardless of gender, should stand to greet the new arrival.

Not everyone is comfortable with touching. In Western culture, a confident and firm handshake is often expected to convey professionalism and respect. Avoid incorporating your left hand in a handshake by laying it on top of the other person’s right hand or holding their shoulder. Refrain from holding a handshake for too long. Handshakes should last just a few seconds.

It is disrespectful to refrain from shaking another person’s hand. If you are unable to shake someone’s hand, it is best to provide that person with an explanation. Donna Wilk Cardillo shares this example, “Forgive me for not shaking your hand but I have recently had hand surgery,” and suggests, “If someone is visually impaired, you might ask, “May I shake your hand?” (Source: Be respectful of those who are differently abled to foster an inclusive environment. If someone extends their left hand instead of their right hand, accept their greeting as offered.

By Brenda Fabian
Brenda Fabian Senior Director of Professional Graduate Career Services