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Limp wrists and tight fists: What your handshake says about you

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handshakeThere is a man—a very well-known man, a legend of sorts—whom I’ve been privileged enough to have seen on occasion through the years at various venues and events. (Never mind his reputation. To protect my career, he shall remain anonymous.) Our exchanges have been pleasant enough, I should say—inconsequential, really, and empty of any real substance. Now, as an admiring subordinate, I have enormous respect for this person. I suspect I probably also have a mild envy given his vast and ever-lasting contributions to our shared discipline. But our first interaction, which lasted mere seconds, left me with a rather negative, viscerally based impression of him.

For years I’ve tried ridding myself of this deep-seated, queasy, blue-in-the-gills feeling that accompanies any mention of his name, any vague allusion to his ubiquitous theories or ideas. It’s all to no avail, though. That appendage of his on that fateful day over a decade ago at some banal academic conference was as revolting a thing as ever I’ve had the misfortune of holding in my own. And I’ve held a lot of unpleasant things in my hand, I hasten to add. But his grip was so exceedingly limp—as limp, I would imagine, as the collapsed dorsal fin of a newly dead porpoise. His hands and nails were oddly well-manicured and soft, betraying a cosmetic interest that I would associate more with a geisha than a man of his years and status. And his hand was warm; a little too warm, like a squid warmed in the microwave or the feverish foot of a sick infant. Together, the full sensation of that thing in my own eager, clasping, acolyte hand has never left me.

I do realize that I’m somewhat neurotic, and others might not put as much stock as I do into a thing as silly as a perfunctory handshake. But, as it turns out, the importance of a firm handshake isn’t just the stuff of career day fairs and fatherly advice. Psychological scientists have discovered that the nature of your handshake—say, whether you proffer a dainty, boneless hand or one that’s tight and intense, whether you make sustained eye contact or stare at the person’s feet, whether you pull away prematurely or hold on for an uncomfortably long time, and so on—says a lot about who you are as a person. And on the basis of this renowned scholar’s impotent handshake, he wasn’t someone I wanted to get to know beyond reading his important books and articles.

Before I get into the science of handshakes, though, how did this strange greeting ritual ever emerge, one where we touch our sensitive, bare palms together—often with people we wouldn’t want to touch with latex gloves on otherwise—as we move our hands swiftly up-and-down in the air, striving to be in sync? And although it may not be entirely universal, why in the world is it found in cultures so far and wide? In Europe, descriptions of handshaking appear as early as Homer’s writings. Handshaking has also been reported by cultural anthropologists as occurring independent of European influence in Africa, Native America, Guatemala and Central Asia, among many other places.

In his classic book Love and Hate: The Natural History of Behavior Patterns (1971; Aldine de Gruyter), the acclaimed human ethologist from Vienna, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (his last name is pronounced something like “eyeball-I-best-felt”), provides some telling facts about the shared characteristics of human greeting displays, giving insight into the origins of the handshaking ritual. In chimpanzees, he points out, dominant apes will oftentimes extend an open hand to distressed subordinates as a sort of calming gesture; and in some chimp communities, individuals will clasp hands overhead as they manually groom each other. In humans, in contrast, it’s most often the subordinate who initiates the handshake, particularly toward dominant people they wish to impress.

A shared feature in formal greeting displays between human strangers—whatever body parts they involve—is the expressive display of vulnerability between the two parties. For men in Europe, but not women, it’s considered a breach of etiquette to shake another man’s hand without first removing one’s gloves, a behavior pattern Eibl-Eibesfeldt claims can be traced back to the Middle Ages when gloves were made of steel and offered protection for warriors. Other cultural greeting displays similarly involve a demonstration of helplessness. In perhaps the ultimate display of a submissive offering—and one I think we should consider adopting ourselves—it is customary among some Papuan tribes to touch the tip of the other man’s penis in greeting.

But there’s also another common feature of human greeting displays between men, one that involves a clear element of aggression. According to Eibl-Eibesfeldt, in Central Eskimo tribes, proper etiquette demands that the stranger approach an established group member while turning his bare cheek for the latter to slap. It’s then the group member’s turn to present his own cheek to the stranger for slapping, and on and on with increasing violence until one of them falls to the ground. “The object of the [slapping] duel,” writes Eibl-Eibesfeldt, “is for the stranger to prove that he is worthy of acceptance.” And he can even take his very own Eskimo wife once he passes the test.

Western greeting displays are positively coquettish in comparison to this manly norm, but although we don’t slap each other silly in sizing each other up, handshakes between even well-mannered men can get a bit combative, too. My limp-wristed fellow scientist might not have had anything to prove, but many men’s “vice grips” are transparent displays of their physical strength, a not-so-subtle reminder for the other party that, although things are on friendly terms now, one would be wise to keep it that way.

As a golden rule, though, a good handshake—one that won’t strike us as being too weird, anyway, or leave us ruminating on it a decade later—is like Goldilocks’s favorite bed: not too soft, not too hard, but just right. Yet, although we may strive to make changes to our signature style, it may be that we’ve little control over the type of handshake that comes most easily to us. In Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette (1957; Doubleday), the author writes that:

A handshake is as much a part of personality as the way we walk, and although we may modify and improve a poor handshake if someone calls our attention to it, it will still usually be just like us, assured or timid, warm or cool.

Etiquette manuals from the days of Leave it to Beaver aren’t exactly formidable sources of scientific knowledge about human behavior. But in fact, some recent studies have actually found a strong correlation between handshake characteristics and underlying personality dimensions, which are of course traits largely out of our hands. In one study by University of Alabama psychologist William Chaplin and his colleagues, and published in Personality Processes and Individual Differences, a group of experimenters was trained in the art of handshaking assessment and then judged the handshakes of 112 male and female undergraduate students. The training regimen for evaluating the participants’ handshaking was reasonably rigorous, or about as rigorous as it could be:

The [experimenter’s] hand was extended straight out from the waist with the palm facing to the left and the thumb raised at a 45-degree angle. On contact with an individual’s hand, the [experimenters] closed their hand around the other’s hand, but waited for the other to initiate the strength of the grip and the upward and downward shaking. In addition, the raters were instructed to release their grip only when the participant began to relax his or her grip or otherwise showed signs of wishing to terminate the handshake.

This was in fact a clever little study. The students were told that they were in the lab simply to complete a series of personality tests—they were completely naïve to the fact that their scores on these personality tests were actually being correlated with their handshakes qualities (having innocently shaken hands with the experimenters before and after the study). Composite measures of the handshakes, from trained male and female experimenters, were collected on a set of eight factors, including dryness, temperature, texture, strength, vigor, completeness of grip, duration and eye contact.

As you might expect, men with strong handshakes—those that involved a more complete grip and were stronger, more vigorous, longer in duration and included more eye contact—were also more extraverted, open to experience and less neurotic than those men scoring lower on these handshaking dimensions. Women who scored high on these handshake dimensions were more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences; they also made a better overall impression (that is, they were more likeable) on the raters than did women with a more typical feminine handshake.

Chaplin and his coauthors point out that this peculiar finding of the importance of a firm female handshake seems to go against the grain of other findings indicating that assertive and highly confident women are judged negatively by both sexes. “Giving a firm handshake may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women that does not have the costs associated with other less subtle forms of assertive self-promotion.” In other words, it’s unlikely that a woman will be branded a “bitch” on the basis of her handshake, even if it’s a somewhat typically masculine handshake. (Butch, maybe, but not a bitch.)

This can be very strategic information for women going on employment interviews, which was something investigated by another group of scientists several years later. In a 2008 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, University of Iowa researcher Greg Stewart and his colleagues set out to test the age-old wisdom that a firm handshake actually matters in an employment interview. In this study, a group of 98 undergraduate students enrolled in a “career preparations class” participated in a mock job interview with human resources professionals from local organizations and companies. But it was only semi-mock, because the students were also told that, occasionally, those who did exceptionally well were offered real jobs by these prospective employers, and so they should treat the interviews seriously (such as by dressing appropriately and researching the company beforehand).

Just like in the earlier study by Chaplin and his colleagues, the present study included a group of independent handshake evaluators—not the interviewers, but trained experimenters who greeted the participants and ushered them over to the prospective employer. The researchers who welcomed the participants into the lab and said goodbye found that the “job applicants” gave consistent and reliable handshakes to everyone they shook with. (The interviewers shook hands with the candidates too, but the interviewers had no idea that the study was actually about handshakes.)  Thus, the participants were likely to have made the same manual impression on the interviewer. As in the previous study, women tended to give more limp handshakes than did the men. But—after ruling out other explanations like physical attractiveness and dress—this factor didn’t affect the likelihood of their getting the job offer because women compensated for the liability of their wishy-washy handshakes by other advantageous social skills, such as making better eye contact with the interviewers than did the men.

However—and here’s the important part—those women who did break the gender norm by giving very firm handshakes were at a considerable advantage at getting an offer over men who gave an equally firm handshake. The authors suggest that this is because of a salience effect: prospective employers expect women, but not men, to give weak handshakes, so those who don’t shake limply stand out from the rest and make a lasting impact.

Speaking of handshakes, I’m off to give a few of my own at a conference this morning. Little do these innocent people know how much I’ll judge them for their revolting, comatose-like handshakes. Oh, relax, I’m only joking … kind of.  



In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

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Comments 33 Comments

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  1. 1. candide 3:45 pm 02/18/2010

    This is Science?
    Subjective feelings and TV references?

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  2. 2. Johnay 5:24 pm 02/18/2010

    You didn’t read past the first couple paragraphs, did you?

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  3. 3. spovich 5:29 pm 02/18/2010

    Back in 1989, Dick Cheney was the commencement speaker at my college graduation and shook my hand. To this day, I still vividly remember the handshake feeling like I was holding a warm, clammy, limp fish. Now granted, he had almost 1,000 handshakes that day, but that didn’t mitigate my negative impression.

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  4. 4. ayerlke 7:39 pm 02/18/2010

    I’m a woman, and my uncle is something of a mover and shaker in his business circle. He made absolutely sure that from a very young age I knew how to deliver a firm, confident handshake. That knowledge has served me well, and it drives me up a wall when I shake hands with women who grasp only with their fingers and not their whole hands.

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  5. 5. Crucialitis 8:59 pm 02/18/2010

    I don’t bother with tight handshakes. Instead of aggression I try to channel as much of a "buddy" feeling as possible into my hand. I shake hands like my hand wants to be there. Regardless of status or gender, it’s the same handshake. It’s my way of saying no matter what I will always be your equal. But, maybe that’s my sense of irreverence coming to the surface.

    In my experience though, hand-crushers are the worst people out there. Good thing they telegraph their intentions first.

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  6. 6. Czanna 4:09 am 02/19/2010

    I’m a woman, too, and I’ve rarely had a poor handshake from other women. Perhaps women in my professional and social circle are more confident and comfortable than women in general, but I rather think it’s a peer thing — we see each other as peers and treat each other accordingly. However, that’s not true with men. What drives me crazy are the limp, pallid handshakes certain men offer women, while offering regular ones to men in the same setting. The only positive aspect of that is being able to dismiss the dead fish — he probably doesn’t consider women equals. It’s always nice to have the early warning.

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  7. 7. sparcboy 9:07 am 02/19/2010

    I worked with a computer consultant one time who was a very quite and timid individual. He spent a lot of time on computers and gaming. He was thin and appeared to have little muscle tone. He also had a very, as Czanna puts it, limp, pallid handshake. His hands were soft, though cursorily, he knuckles looked dry and calloused. Late one evening he had to log in remotely to assist in resolving a problem. His connection seemed a little slow. It turned out because he was in Asia competing in martial arts. Turns out he had reached the level of black in not one, but two martial arts disciplines and the callouses were from breaking boards with his hands.
    Point is, we humans tend to interpret other behaviors based on our own preconceived ideas, that is, the concept of projection.
    Case in point, Czanna’s interpretation of a man’s handshake. If different from that offered to a man, the she "dismiss the dead fish".
    I was taught as child to present a woman with a soft handshake to be respectful.
    "The way we perceive others says more about who we are, than who they are." – AU

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  8. 8. drfear 2:05 pm 02/19/2010

    I’ve experienced something much worse than the "dead fish" handshake, and it continues to affect me in much the same way as the "queasy, blue-in-the-gills feeling" Dr. Bering relates. The husband of one of my wife’s co-workers recently died. He was a scientist with a brilliant mind and a quirky sense of humor. I was disposed to like him and wanted us to become friends. Not long after our first meeting I offered my hand to shake. He reciprocated, but with his middle finger curled. When our hands joined he tickled my palm with his fingertip. I was as startled as if he’d been using an old-fashioned joy buzzer. He looked at me with a kind of puckish half-smile on his face and I quickly opened my hand. Although I felt slightly nauseated I didn’t say anything — as I said, I’d hoped we could be friends. By our next meeting I’d forgotten about the incident and offered my hand in greeting. Same prank, same elfish grin, same feeling of nausea. So I simply made up my mind never to shake hands with him again and it’s probably no surprise that we never became friends, except through our respective spouses. Now he’s gone, the victim of a particularly gruesome stomach cancer. Naturally I feel sad for his widow and his son. But as much as I regret his passing I regret even more that he left me with the still-vivid memory of that stupid, annoying handshake.

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  9. 9. GlobalChicago 2:29 pm 02/19/2010

    Except for one post, it is amazing how Anglo-Saxon everyone is. Handshaking, in its practice as well as in its intensity is heavily cultural. If you have lived in any other part of the world other than the US and Western Europe, you will immediately understand that shaking hands is overrated. Actually in many parts of the world, the palms are pressed together with a slight bow of respect. I find this more dignified and hygienic. Who knows where you hand has been and believe me, I definitely don’t want to find out!

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  10. 10. BartKing 3:56 pm 02/19/2010

    Great piece. *bows*

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  11. 11. BartKing 3:57 pm 02/19/2010

    Great piece. *bows*

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  12. 12. anyoneis 8:39 pm 02/19/2010

    Would that be in reference to the Papuan tribal greeting?

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  13. 13. BartKing 8:53 pm 02/19/2010

    Ha! *runs off*

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  14. 14. way2ec 12:25 am 02/20/2010

    Ahh, Candide, how often you have written that you don’t find the science scientific enough. I have subjective emotional responses in mathematics (don’t you?), and Bering’s reference to Leave it to Beaver makes for a "classic" cultural reference. Another commenter points out how "Anglo" this article is, as Bering is, and I assume most if not all of the participants were also, and if not, they were operating within the cultural norms of "white culture". And to Jesse Bering, I am afraid that I too have shuddered after certain types of handshakes, and would like to add that I think there is an electro-biochemical component to them. Even firm positive handshakes have left me wanting to wipe my hands. As complicated and impossible to measure as the chemistry in kisses. As for your comment about touching penises… You could have left that one out… EUUUW… makes rubbing noses SUCH a better option, and whatever do the women do in that society…oops, sorry Candide, yet another "unscientific" subjective response.

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  15. 15. ian 1:03 am 02/20/2010

    A joy to read. I’ve been wondering what happened to Jesse’s column. Haven’t seen it in the weekly SciAm newsletters. Perhaps I need to resubscribe instead of trying to "get by" with the e-news. Great science and great writing too often are domains exclusive to each other. Jesse bridges the two with keen insight and tremendous humor. OK, Jesse Bering fanboy signing off…

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  16. 16. charbar68 7:22 pm 02/20/2010

    Much of the unconscious quirks say a lot about a person. It is interesting that a handshake is one of them that unconsciously expresses itself and offers insight into a person’s personality. I’m for those who express their usual handshake. I want to know who I am dealing with…no disguises, please. Great article!

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  17. 17. charbar68 7:26 pm 02/20/2010

    Human’s instinctively interpret quirky traits or other traits as a connection to who we are. It is interesting that the unconscious ticks that we all express spills over to handshakes themselves. Given this research, I prefer to receive the person’s unconscious extension of their self using their natural handshake. I want to know who I am dealing with, and if the handshake tells me then more power to it, limp or firm. Great and interesting article!

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  18. 18. djanjetovic 8:36 pm 02/20/2010

    It is written much about the origin and nature of hand shaking. My explanation is very simple and obvious, which gives it an advantage over the other explanations: shaking hands is a symbolic act which shows and confirms a bond, a connection between two people. People take each others had to show the bond between them and shake hands as if to test and confirm how strong this bond is (in the same way as one would shake a rope to test how firm it is tied to something). Weaker hand grip and handshake than expected can be interpreted as a sign of a weak and unreliable bond (and people generally do not like it). Shaking hands tend to occur between partners which consider each other to be equal in an important feature. Shaking hands shows bond and mutual/equal respect. Both partners use the same means to show the bond. Showing other types of relationship between people is not typical for handshake. Submission and dominance is expressed in greetings through bowing, kissing others’ hand, kneeling etc. Protection, love, caring etc. is expressed through embracing, stroke etc. Many of those greetings can be combined with handshake, but those greetings than go further than handshake, showing not just bond and mutual respect but saying more about the imbalance in, or intensity of the relationship.

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  19. 19. djanjetovic 8:40 pm 02/20/2010

    It is written much about the origin and nature of hand shaking. My explanation is very simple and obvious, which gives it an advantage over the other explanations: shaking hands is a symbolic act which shows and confirms a bond, a connection between two people. People take each others had to show the bond between them and shake hands as if to test and confirm how strong this bond is (in the same way as one would shake a rope to test how firm it is tied to something). Weaker hand grip and handshake than expected can be interpreted as a sign of a weak and unreliable bond (and people generally do not like it). Shaking hands tend to occur between partners which consider each other to be equal in an important feature. Shaking hands shows bond and mutual/equal respect. Both partners use the same means to show the bond. Showing other types of relationship between people is not typical for handshake. Submission and dominance is expressed in greetings through bowing, kissing others’ hand, kneeling etc. Protection, love, caring etc. is expressed through embracing, stroke etc. Many of those greetings can be combined with handshake, but those greetings than go further than handshake, showing not just bond and mutual respect but saying more about the imbalance in, or intensity of the relationship.

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  20. 20. GargamelCuntSnarf 8:29 pm 02/21/2010

    sparcboy’s hit right on the money. No social ‘science’ tells anyone anything conclusive in all cases. Period.

    The most one can learn from shaking another person’s hand is something about their own preconceptions and prejudices. That is the full extent of it. If it weren’t then there would be clear and demonstrable correlations between success in any given (professional or personal) field, and the firmness or limpness of a person’s grasp.

    A handshake will tell you about as much as will a person’s horoscope; that is, nothing at all.

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  21. 21. no quizzle 12:21 am 02/22/2010

    Right on, it’s respectful to shake a woman’s hand a little softer than you would a man’s. Then again I still open doors, and pay for dinner etc. I guess the days of the gentleman are past us.

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  22. 22. emmonakalaska99581 4:29 pm 02/22/2010

    I am of Alaskan Native descent, Yupi’k to be exact, and we are know as the Central Yupi’k (Eskimo). I have never been told of the slapping routine from my elders nor have I witnessed it. Weddings back in the day were arranged. And strangers are welcomed and treated as guests. My part of the state is the most hospitable place you can ever travel to. Don’t expect to get slapped up here unless you ask for it. Please make sure your getting the right information before conveying the wrong concept to the world. I would think better research is done before talking about a part of the world you aparently know nothing about….

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  23. 23. kenstech 3:48 am 02/24/2010

    "Things OCD people think about for 10, Alex…

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  24. 24. jb3 11:44 am 02/24/2010

    I was surprised and unaware of the firmness of handshakes and the male ego until I injured my back . The handsake gesture was very uncomfortable the pain shot down my back every time I shook hands with anyone even women caused enormous pain to my back injury. Most people were unaware and the funny thing was if a male noticed my discomfort it was if he won some type of macho award. I am repaired and back to normal now after 4 back surgeries and have returned to my concrete finishing craft. Now I squish everyone for the pain I had to endure.hahahaha

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  25. 25. royniles 5:28 pm 02/24/2010

    The handshake signifies that you and the other person are agreeing to interact in a trustworthy fashion. A firm handshake indicates you wish to establish a solid connection to that effect.

    The limp hand or fingers-only extension signifies in a way that the other person isn’t worthy of your interest or trust. And that the meeting is obligatory rather than welcome.

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  26. 26. rockjohny 5:41 pm 02/24/2010

    " Weaker hand grip and handshake than expected can be interpreted as a sign of a weak and unreliable bond "….that reminded me of an old friend of mine i’d fish with who had a ‘wet rag’ handshake; i helped him get a job on my crew and darned if he didn’t turn on me, taking sides against me with a low-life who wound up getting fired and later going to the slammer for child molestation. It made absolutely no sense but neither did his limp handshake. Sometimes it pays to read the comments, thanks!

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  27. 27. mcollins5813 10:30 pm 02/24/2010

    "…were also more extraverted, open to experience and less neurotic…" To the author and editor of this story- no one is extraverted unless they are very green. An outgoing individual can be typed as extroverted.

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  28. 28. ennui 12:34 am 02/25/2010

    As a pianist and organist I do not want to give a strong handshake and getting my bones crushed in return.
    I remember Glen Gould, who did not want to take his glove off when we met. His hands and my hands were tools of our trade.

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  29. 29. gamt67 9:45 am 02/25/2010

    Great article! I was always taught the "Goldie Lox" rule as you call it by my father and grandfather; but when I joined the Marines and began shaking hands with people in that subculture, a VERY firm grip was ALWAYS expected. Once out, and back in civilian life, it was hard to break that habit and i was criticized for having too firm a shake for years. I consciously have much more respect for women who shake a firm hand, as the ending suggests, they stand out over all the men when they shake firmly. Thanks again for the article and bringing some qualitative social science into the magazine.

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  30. 30. farilyoldguy 12:15 pm 02/25/2010

    Well, I’ve been around a long time, and I can say that the "limp fish" handshakes that I’ve received far outnumber the "bonecrushers". I always am surprised when I get a "limp fish" from a big guy. As far as the bonecrusher is concerned, I have found that type of handshake to be quite rare. In fact, all but a few of such handshakes that I have experienced have come from one source- a cousin of mine. He never failed to give me an overpowering shake when we met. But then, he always had to present himself as the most macho guy in the room, which may say something about his psyche. The vast majority of handshakes that I have given and received have been pretty much "equal", even with the other party being a pro football player or other athlete, or someone of very high status.

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  31. 31. kakketoe 11:49 am 03/7/2010

    Be careful , shaking the hand of someone with arthritis. it hurts!!

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  32. 32. kakketoe 11:50 am 03/7/2010

    Be careful shaking the hand of someone with arthritis.
    A firm hand really hurts!!

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  33. 33. humungojerry 5:56 am 07/30/2010

    @drfear, i may be mistaken, but I belive that is the masonic ‘secret’ handshake.

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