Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

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


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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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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