4 Reasons Handshakes Go Horribly Wrong

Clammy, creepy, or just plain crap? Consider these ideas before greeting people, so you don't leave them shaken.

What's the feeling you get after receiving a bad handshake? Psychology Today writer Joe Navarro, who gives seminars on such things, finds the post-greeting evaluation often includes hits like "it was wet," "it was creepy," or a simple "eeeeuw."

So how do we give appropriately confident handshakes, in between the dainty finger-tipper and the machismo-laden handcrusher, between the deadfish limpwrister and the I-saw-this-on-TV why-does-this-have-to-be-racially-charged fist bump thing?

These are good questions. And since first impressions are formed in seven seconds, handshakes help set the trajectory of a relationship—making that first contact with a new human crucial. Thankfully we have Alec Baldwin, some golfers, and a few goofy dudes to help us understand what went wrong with that handshake.

1) Pay attention, you galoot

"Make sure you are making eye contact with the person with whom you are shaking hands and avoid distractions," Navarro says, and it's good advice: not deigning to attend to another person's experience of you is a shortcut to becoming hateable. And it makes people feel real, real awkward.

2) Please, please have dry hands

There are few worse reassurances than, after having just shook somebody's moistened paw, that they explain away the foreign film upon your palm by saying "Oh, I was just in the bathroom." That's just great.

The BBC found that a quarter of Brits have fecal matter on their hands; we have little reason to think that Americans are in a less shitty situation. So please wash and dry thoroughly. Please.

3) The epic miscommunication

Humans thrive on social signaling. If we get sent the wrong signals, we behave in strange ways: Behold the unbridled awkwardness below:

Where does the awkward come from? In this case the handshake is like the at-work hug: Someone needs to assume the leadership role and strongly signal whether you're going for the fist bump or the handshake or the high five or the hug—otherwise you'll end up as weird as those two unfortunate dudes above.

4) The overshake

There is too much of a good thing: Navarro rails against the "politician's handshake," that move where you double-team the other person's hand with both of your mitts in some strange gesture of forced familiarity.

To inoculate against that, let us heed Navarro's caution:

No one likes it, it is too personal, and you have to earn the right to do it. Politicians do it thinking you will like them more—you won't. If you feel you need to touch more, shake the hand normally and with the other touch the forearm.

Otherwise horrible things might happen.

Hat tip: Psychology Today

[Handshake Illustration: file404 via Shutterstock]

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  • Mark Anderson

    There seems to be a lack of education for the youth of today on what constitutes a solid yet simple hand shake and yet turns out as a failed attempted to ensure confidence in ones potential employer.  In most if not all interviews I have held there an attempt of a hand shake that looks like you should be kissing ones hand, than confirming a long tradition of connecting between two people. Slightly limp and bent at the wrist, leaving you thinking, W.T.H....

  • B Pollock

    I vividly remember my first handshake gone terribly wrong.  The grips just did not line up and it felt really awkward.  The other party simply let go of my hand, told me "that was not acceptable...let's try again," and we had a better go at it.  Recognize it, fix it, and move on.

  • Dave Minella

    I would add one note to #1. Yes, pay attention. Yes, look the other person in the eye. But, FIRST, look at the other person's hand to make sure you have good aim, good contact and a good dock first. If you're off on your target point, the other advice becomes moot.

  • Lance A Schart

    Handshaking, eye contact, manners, and basic social courtesies (walking behind a woman up stairs, for example) should be mandatory college graduation prerequisites.

  • Shelley Hoovler Payne

    always be firm but not crushing...someone could have arthritis or an injury...think about how you hold a golf club or tennis racquet (or at least how you should hold them!).

  • Anna K Donahue

    I meet a lot of people who simply don't shake hands. There's many reasons; arthritis, cleanliness, psychological, religious. One guy who was a professional pianist would not shake hands with anyone. I notice also that doctors don't particularly like to engage and many people are so clumsy at the practice that I am not aggressive about it.

  • Rick A

    Great examples, Drake. But you missed the most creepy handshake of all, the dead fish. There is absolutely nothing worse than shaking a limp wristed pile of mush. A firm grasp for a couple of seconds will do it. That being said, don't grasp so tightly that the ends of your counterpart's fingers explode. For someone with arthritis grasping too firm could be painful.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Also, don't do a change-up, where you don't want to shake hard, and so you shake more gently, and the other person shakes hard, so you adjust and shake hard, and the other person shakes gently, and you adjust and .... And it's a bummer.  I generally don't make that mistake, I shake briskly and firmly and then I'm done.  But I did make it about two weeks ago with someone I thought I knew better than I did.  We did the change-up and it was clearly uncomfortable for both of us.  Fortunately, we got to shake again on leavetaking and this time we got it right.  Whew!

  • Teddy Burriss

    Good article Drake. 
    Unless I know the person well enough, I always go with a straightforward handshake. No fist bumps or unique style of handshake. Two pumps and then I let loose and wait for the other person to let go.

    The other thing I will never do is grab the top of the person's hand. This is sometimes referred to as the "minister handshake." 

    Simple and straight forward. It works most of the time.

    Thanks for sharing Drake.