At some point in college, handshaking becomes an almost essential part of making someone’s acquaintance. It starts to feel positively inadequate to just smile and say hello.
The recent frequency and variability of my handshaking encounters has led me to wonder: Why do people shake hands in the first place? Why do some people shake so limply while others try to strangle my hand?
Surely, all of us have been told that a firm handshake makes a positive impression on employers, professors and colleagues. Considering how hard it can be for many of us to get jobs in this economy, it is especially crucial now to be self-conscious about our handshaking styles.
Research psychologist Jesse Bering wrote a column in Scientific American Mind last month about handshaking. Although greeting displays vary wildly from culture to culture, he wrote that aggression and vulnerability are two recurrent features.
The aggressive characteristic is most obvious in the greeting etiquette of Central Eskimo tribes. It entails taking turns slapping each other on the cheek with increasing violence until somebody falls to the ground, Bering explained. This duel allows individuals to prove their worthiness to each other.
The vulnerability attribute, on the other hand, is embodied by the wholeheartedly submissive greeting behavior of some Papuan tribes. “It is customary among some Papuan tribes to touch the tip of the other man’s penis in greeting,” wrote Bering.
Handshaking seems to fall somewhere between these two extremes, with variations among individuals leaning one way or the other. People who give limp shakes have more of a Papuan style, whereas those who give firm ones are more like the Central Eskimos.
It’s always easier to connect with people whose handshaking styles match one’s own. When people give me limp fingers, I assume they’re timid, disinterested or genuinely breakable creatures — none of which makes it easy to form a connection with them. People who try to strangle my hand to death don’t make a good impression either. It suggests they’re angry, overcompensating or just plain careless.
On the other hand, shaking hands with someone who has a grip that is neither flaccid nor violent feels like making a deal or a promise. It’s like saying, “I’m enthusiastic to meet you; we’re in this together, equally.”
Wikipedia defines a handshake as “a short ritual in which two people grasp each other’s right hand, often accompanied by a brief up and down movement of the grasped hands.”
When you really sit and scrutinize the practice, it seems totally weird and random (though admittedly not as bizarre as other greeting styles).
Handshaking seems to have evolved to communicate something like: “I am touching you without hurting you. You have no reason to fear me presently, but depending on the pressure I am applying to your hand, you can deduce if I am asserting myself or submitting to you.”
Bering cited a University of Alabama study that found that men who shake hands with a strong, long grip with steady eye contact score lower on measures of neuroticism and higher in extroversion and openness than men with flimsy shakes. Women with an assertive handshaking style in the study scored as “more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences” and were more likable to experimenters.
He also noted women who give firm handshakes were more likely to be offered a job than men who gave equally firm handshakes in a University of Iowa study. This suggests that people are more likely to interpret a firm female handshake as a sign of confidence, whereas a firm male handshake may be more quickly perceived as aggressive or intimidating.
Either way, it is interesting to note what happens when different handshaking styles collide.
Next time you shake hands with somebody, evaluate your style. Are you a Papuan? A Central Eskimo? Can you even tell?
One greeting style that Bering didn’t mention in his column is the cheek kissing of Latin American and some European cultures — a greeting style that communicates not vulnerability or aggression but love.
Maybe we should try this at job interviews. At least we’d stand out.
Jean Guerrero is a senior majoring in print journalism. Her column, “Scientastical,” runs Mondays.