The How, When, and Why of Handshakes

Business people shaking hands outside of office building
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A handshake is a type of greeting that involves grasping hands followed by a brief up and down movement. Handshakes are used as both a greeting and parting gesture throughout the world.

Handshakes can be an important part of making a first impression. Although it is possible to overcome a poor first impression, it is easier to learn how to avoid some of the typical mistakes that people make when shaking hands.

This article discusses why handshakes are important and when it is appropriate to use this gesture. It also explores some basic guidelines to follow when shaking hands and some bad handshakes you should try to avoid.

Why Handshakes are Important

Handshakes can be a valuable communication tool for making a first impression. These gestures are often exchanged within the context of business or social relationships. They signify a greeting, but they also help inspire feelings of trust and intimacy.

As a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, many people feel hesitant about shaking hands. Experts suggest that if you have been vaccinated against COVID-19, shaking hands is generally considered safe.  

Of course, good hand hygiene is essential no matter what. Be sure to wash hands frequently and use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

When to Shake Hands

Knowing when to shake hands is also an important part of using this gesture effectively. Handshakes have traditionally been a preferred greeting in a variety of contexts, particularly upon meeting someone for the first time.

The pandemic and the social distancing that accompanied it threw this tradition into a state of limbo. Not only was shaking hands frowned on, but it was also often openly discouraged in many public settings.

While some people have returned to the practice as the pandemic wanes, there are still plenty who are not ready to return to the age-old practice. This can add a layer of complexity when determining when to shake hands. You need to determine if the situation calls for a handshake, you also need to think about whether others will even welcome the greeting.

If you're not sure if extending your hand is the right move to make, pay attention to the body language of the people you are greeting. When others appear to hesitate, consider easing the awkwardness by simply making another greeting gesture and moving forward with the conversation.

How to Avoid a Handshake

While shaking hands might be a time-honored greeting, not everyone appreciates or wants to participate in this social tradition. Some people might prefer to avoid this type of contact for a variety of reasons, including a desire to limit contact with germs. Some experts have even proposed the idea of handshake-free zones.

If you want to avoid the need to shake hands, some strategies you might try include:

  • Make an excuse: The new era of social distancing has helped make turning down a handshake somewhat easier. You might try simply indicating that you shouldn't shake hands due to the pandemic. It is a quick way to communicate that you don't want to engage in this gesture.
  • Use another gesture: You might be able to circumvent a handshake by quickly implementing another gesture before the other person reaches out. Fist or elbow bumps are options you might consider. Or you might try just giving a small wave and a smile. Research suggests that bumping fists can be more hygienic than shaking hands.

Recap

You can preempt a handshake if you are really uncomfortable with it. Strategies you might try include carrying something in both hands or offering a fist bump, elbow tap, or quick wave before the other person reaches out their hand.

Types of Handshakes to Use

Observing some basic guidelines can help you get handshakes right. Handshake grip should be no harder than the strength that you would use to hold a door handle. You should also match your grip to the person you are shaking hands with.

Avoid standing too close when shaking hands. If someone is too close to you, simply take a step back. Unless the other person has you in a vice grip, you should be able to reclaim your personal space.

The ideal handshake lasts two to three seconds and does not go on longer than the verbal introduction. Any longer, and it can seem like you are just holding hands.

If you're worried about sweaty or clamming hands, try discreetly wiping your palms before you shake hands. For cold hands, you might try warming them up by rubbing them together or keeping an instant heat packet in your pocket.

Bad Handshakes to Avoid

In addition to following some basic advice on how and when to shake hands, there are a few different types of handshakes that you should avoid. Some common "bad" handshakes include:

  • Dominant handshake: This involves placing your palm downward when offering your hand to someone and is a form of aggressive communication. By placing your palm downward, you force the other person to place their palm up, a submissive position.
  • Bone crusher: Like the dominant handshake, the bone crusher is aggressive and involves an excessively strong grip. If you've ever been the recipient of a bone crusher, you know how uncomfortable it can be. Older adults require a looser grip.
  • Double-handed: Although there are instances in which a double-handed handshake is appropriate, if used with someone whom you have just met, it can seem overly personal or intimate. Reserve the double-handed handshake for close friends.
  • Too close: The "too close" handshake involves the other person coming in very close to you to shake hands or pulling you in close as you are shaking hands. In either case, the closeness of the handshake is likely to make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Limp fish: Opposite the bone crusher is the limp fish—a limp handshake that signals that you are nervous, uncertain, or uninvolved to the other person. A limp handshake can be particularly detrimental to your career.
  • Fingers only: This handshake only offers your fingers to the other person. To avoid this scenario, be sure that the webbed part of your hand between your pointer finger and thumb is touching the other person's hand before you tighten your grip.
  • Clammy-handed: If you are nervous about introductions, you may have cold, clammy, or sweaty hands in social situations.
  • No eye contact: Not making eye contact during a handshake may signal to the other person that you are not forthcoming.
  • Missed: "The miss" is a handshake that somehow doesn't come together. While awkward, the other person feels just as responsible, so remember that it was accidental.
  • Long handshake: This handshake lasts past the point of introductions and begins to feel awkward and uncomfortable due to its duration.

Recap

A good handshake involves observing body language, maintaining appropriate distance, and using a firm but gentle grip. Avoiding certain types of "bad" handshakes, such as those that are too strong or too weak, it also important.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, knowing how to shake hands correctly is a skill that requires practice. Shake hands when you have the opportunity, and in time it will become as second nature as saying "thank you."

When all else fails and you find yourself offering a bad handshake, what should you do? Move on. Try to distract the other person with a question or compliment. Although you can only make one first impression, there is usually plenty of time to make up for a bad one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should I do after a bad handshake?

    The best thing to do after a bad handshake is to simply move the conversation forward. Rather than highlighting the awkwardness, moving past it can help focus on what's important and help minimize the effects of a poor first impression.

  • What does it mean when someone gives you a bad handshake?

    The meaning of a bad handshake may depend on the type it was. A dominant or bone-crusher handshake can indicate that the other person is trying to take charge of the conversation. A handshake that is limp, clammy, or that is not accompanied by eye contact might indicate that the other person is anxious.

  • What do different types of handshakes mean?

    Handshakes can have different meanings based on their characteristics. A firm, brief handshake that is accompanied by friendly body language may convey that the other person is genuinely interested. A handshake that is too strong might suggest that the other person is trying to dominate the interaction. A weak grip might suggest disinterest or nervousness, while handshakes that last too long or involve standing too close may result in feelings of awkwardness or discomfort.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."