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The Art of the Handshake: Limp Fish, Swing, or Arm Wrestle?


Mon Nov 03 2014

The Art of the Handshake: Limp Fish, Swing, or Arm Wrestle?

We recently used a new location for one of our leadership programs. I watched incredulously as one of my team was greeted by the hotel manager who, having extended his hand for the customary handshake, then went on to literally swing his arm from side to side. Assuming this was simply a one off aberration I walked up for my turn, only to be subjected to the same bizarre and slightly uncomfortable experience. 

We laughed it off…until the next day when I was introduced to a young professional who I was going to be mentoring for the next six months. He promptly offered his handshake—the proverbial limp fish. YUCK.


Then it struck me. Who teaches us to shake hands? It’s not something I recall on my school curriculum. While simple as a concept, this gesture has the potential to say a lot about you. Unless someone has the confidence to give feedback on an inappropriate handshake how is one to learn.

So, I decided to give my mentee some feedback. As our initial conversation progressed, I asked him about the first impression he had hoped to communicate with his handshake and then went on to demonstrate how it felt to be on the receiving end of a limp fish. He laughed, and was slightly embarrassed. NO ONE HAD TOLD HIM.

Here are my best practices for the perfect handshake, one that is delivered with confidence. 

  • Make eye contact. Preparing for a perfect handshake has nothing to do with the hands. As you walk towards someone make eye contact and smile at them.

  • Extend your right hand. (It’s customary and goes back to the ancient times when this was our sword bearing hand—it shows that we have nothing to hide). Your hand should be vertical, with the thumb uppermost. Shaking with palms down is seen as submissive.

  • Make contact. Palm to palm, the web between your thumb and first finger should lock with the same place on the other person (this avoids the “kissing hand” and limp fish hand shake). Take a firm (but not crushing) hold.

  • Shake. Two or three solid pumps up and down (not side to side). The movement is only about an inch up and down from the original position. Remember this move is not about power. It is about firmness.

  • Let go. It may sound obvious, but at the end of the shake you should let go. Don’t hold on. It’s creepy. 

Here is some bonus information for making that first contact effective. 

  • If you are wearing a name badge, put it on your right lapel. That way, as people lean in for a handshake, it is visible and easy to read.

  • Prepare what are you going to say “Hello, my name is Morag Barrett, CEO of Skye Associates.” Keep it short. The conversation that follows will expand on this. A handshake without the verbal greeting feels awkward.

  • Try to avoid wiping your hand on your hip before or after a shake. If you are prone to cold hands, try a quick warm up under a hot air drier in the rest rooms before you start meeting people. Failing that, don’t be afraid to signal, “Sorry I have cold hands”

  • Avoid the urge to handshake with two hands where the second one is placed over the shaking hands can be seen as intrusive, patronizing and overly familiar to strangers.

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