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Is the handshake losing its grip?

The handshake has been around for at least 3,000 years and has played a key role in deal making, a way to judge people you meet - particularly for the first time, and an expression of friendship.

When working as a district manager in the Netherlands a handshake was as close you could get to an official order for a crane. In those days it was far more reliable than any written order. The handshake has also been a vital ingredient when making up after a dispute - a confirmation that the quarrel is over, or as simple expression of friendship. As the great song goes 'I see friends shaking hands saying, "How do you do?" They're really saying "I love you."'

While most handshakes appear similar to a casual observer, there are hundreds of subtle, and not so subtle, variations. The grip is the one aspect most talked about. Th grip alone provides a huge amount of non-verbal feedback… and I am not referring to any sort of secret society nonsense.

At the one extreme, there’s the bone cruncher and the overly long handshake of the insecure macho type who treats the encounter as an opportunity to dominate the encounter. To me a bone cruncher suggests narrow-mindedness, thoughtlessness, or possibly someone uncomfortable in their own skin. One can imagines that if it were socially acceptable, they would rather strip off to the waist and wrestle you to establish the alpha position in the upcoming relationship, but perhaps I am over analysing?

On the other hand (no pun intended!), there are the wimpy and lifeless handshakes. My father, a great proponent of the handshake, called it the ‘wet fish’ shake. It suggests a lack of interest an insipid character or simply someone who can’t be trusted. However, in some cultures, the softer and gentler grip is the polite and preferred technique of shaking hands – so it pays to be aware of local customs.

Then there’s the ‘feel’ of the hand that’s being shaken. Is it wet and clammy? Dry and heavily calloused? Or soft and feminine? All of which tells you something about the person you are meeting. The size of the hand also leaves an impression and what about temperature? How does the expression go? Is it ‘warm hands cold heart’? Or ‘cold hands warm heart’?

There are a myriad of variations, from up and down movements to a simple handclasp and direct eye contact. Eye contact during the handshake is a vital ingredient. Other affectations or tweaks include gripping the other person’s elbow, popular among old friends meeting after long absence, but from a stranger it can be a little strange. Is it just that they are really pleased to meet you? Or, as has been said, an opening attempt to gain the upper hand in a forthcoming negotiation. Then there’s the double handshake, the clapping of the other hand on the back of the other persons to create a three handed jobby. Both techniques are widely used by politicians, which possibly says something.

My father considered the handshake an important if one was to do well in life, especially in business – which to him was life – training started early in the Sparrow household. I have a vivid recollection of what was probably my first handshake lesson at five or six. “OK, Leigh! Its time you learnt how to shake hands correctly”. I don’t recall him doing the same with my sister. But that’s a whole other subject.

For me, the handshake has been unconsciously important since my late teens. I never realised how ‘sacred’ a gesture it was to me until I witnessed the blunt refusal of a proffered hand at bauma in the late 1980s. This occurred when a vice president of a competitor stopped by our booth to introduce himself to me but then refused point-blank a handshake offered by a colleague of mine because of some past disagreement. I was shaken to my core.

How bad do things have to be cause someone to reject a conciliatory handshake? I have always accepted a handshake - would struggle to do anything else - even when coming from someone who has wronged me. I might put a coolness and reticence into it, effectively saying ‘OK we are moving on, but we are not back where we were yet’. That’s the thing about handshakes, they can convey a message that goes way beyond words, to an almost primeval form of communication.
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Arriving at Conexpo last year ago I saw bowls of button badges with a ‘No Handshake’ sign on them at the entrance to the show. Covid 19 awareness was only just beginning. On the first day, few paid attention to the message and man hugs were even being exchanged. A day or two later however that had all changed, elbow bumps had taken over, although no substitute for a handshake, in fact a bit pointless. Others adopted the ankle tap, possibly a little more fun, and with greater scope to add flourishes, but it could get rough if you were to encounter a bone crushing handshaker. Putting hands together with a slight bow is possibly a better option and can be nuanced to some extent.

All of this build up - some might say waffle - is leading me to the burning question of our time. Will the handshake ever return, or has it gone forever?

I for one am really looking forward to its return when it is safe to do so, but what do you think? Let us know via our online poll.


In Japan we do not shake hands, thus avoiding contamination since 3000 years ago.

Apr 7, 2022