When people shake hands, they don’t just shake hands. They convey attitudes and intentions as well. In this article, we explore the psychology behind the different types of handshakes.
Long time ago, when humans had not yet developed a full-fledged spoken language, they communicated mostly through grunts and gestures.
At that time, hands were like the vocal cords of non-verbal communication because a great many gestures involved the use of hands. It may be for this very reason that the brain has more neural connections with the hands than with any other part of the body.
In other words, before we developed spoken language we talked with hands. That’s why hand gestures comprise so many of the non-verbal signals. A very well-known and frequently practised among these is ‘the handshake’.
Why we shake hands
It is believed that the modern handshake is a refined version of an ancient practice in which people grabbed each other’s arms and checked their hands to ensure that no weapons were being carried.
The arm-grabbing then turned into hand-grabbing in which one person clasped the other person’s hand in an ‘arm-wrestling’ type position, commonly observed in gladiators of the Roman Empire.
The current version is less aggressive and is used in all kinds of meetings be it business or social and helps people ‘open up’ to each other. It conveys the message, ‘I carry no weapons. I am harmless. You can trust me. We are on good terms.’
The direction in which your palm faces, while you’re shaking hands, tells a lot about your attitude. If your palms are facing downward, it means you desire dominance over the person you are shaking your hands with. If your palms face upward toward the sky, it means you have a submissive attitude towards the other person.
Now you understand where the expression, ‘gaining the upper hand’ comes from.
A neutral handshake in which both the hands are vertical and do not tilt sideways to any degree signals that both people involved desire neither dominance nor submission. The power has been divided equally.
When couples walk hand-in-hand the dominant partner, usually the man, walks slightly in front with his hands in the upper or frontal position while the woman has her palm facing forward/upward.
When political leaders shake hands this game of dominance becomes very conspicuous. The leader who wants to be seen as more dominant will try to appear on the left side of the photograph because this position allows him to shake hands in the dominant position.
Palm displays are always associated with honesty and submission. A person who talks with frequent palm displays is more likely to be perceived as honest and truthful. You’ll see people displaying their palms during a conversation when they’re admitting a mistake or verbalizing their true emotions.
By displaying the palms the person is non-verbally communicating, ‘See, I have nothing to hide. I’m carrying no weapons’.
Note that while issuing orders, commands or strong statements, you shouldn’t display palms facing upward because even though it signals honesty, it also signals submissiveness. People are less likely to take your commands seriously if you accompany them with this gesture.
Conversely, statements made with palm facing down are viewed as more serious and forces people to perceive you as a person of authority and power.
A dominant person will exert more pressure and so his handshaking will be firmer. Since men compete with other men for dominance, when they receive a firm handshake they increase their pressure to bring themselves on an equal footing or even exceed the pressure of their competitor.
On the contrary, since women usually do not compete with men for dominance, they receive the firm handshake from men without any counter-measure. A soft handshake is essentially a feminine characteristic and when a woman at an important business position shakes hands softly, she’s not taken seriously by others.
As politically incorrect as it might seem, that’s the reality out there. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you want to create a strong and serious impression through your handshake, you have to keep it firm.
People who don’t shake hands firmly make others suspicious.
When someone gives you a ‘dead fish’ handshake you are less likely to trust that person and you might feel that the person is not interested in you or isn’t happy to meet you.
However, you should remember that some artists, musicians, surgeons and those whose work involves the delicate use of hands are often reluctant to shake hands. When they are forced into it they might give you a ‘dead fish’ handshake to protect their hands and not because they aren’t happy to meet you.
It’s the handshake with two hands. It is initiated by a person who wants to give the impression that he’s trustworthy. ‘Wants to give the impression’, I said. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is trustworthy.
It’s a favourite of politicians because they’re desperate to appear trustworthy for obvious reasons. Businessmen and friends also sometimes use this handshake.
When the double-hander is given to you by someone who is close to you, you feel good and might even return it by placing your other hand over their hand.
But when someone who just met you or barely knows you gives you the double hander, you should ask yourself, ‘Why does he want to appear trustworthy? What’s in it for him? Does he want votes? Is he desperate for the business deal?’
Asking yourself these questions can be very helpful in avoiding decisions that you might regret later.