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What simultaneously has the power to forge connections but keeps you at arm’s length? Is fleeting yet leaves a lasting impression? In a word, a handshake.

This ubiquitous gesture, which many believe originated in ancient times as a way to show someone you were unarmed and come in peace, has served as a sign of respect in cultures around the world for thousands of years.


A telling touch

“When you shake a hand, it only lasts a few seconds,” notes Dr. Jack Brown, nonverbal communication expert, physician and founder of the blog, “During that time, you have the power to influence and build rapport, whether your goal is to negotiate peace between Syria and its people, or whether you’re trying to sell a car.”

Patricia Rossi, business etiquette coach and author of Everyday Etiquette, also assigns great meaning to the ordinary handshake. “The reason the handshake is so vitally important is that it is [often] the only physical contact we have with another person and it speaks volumes about us,” she says. “In just three to seven seconds, it tells people how we feel about ourselves and how much we respect them.”


The ideal handshake

When a seemingly simply gesture is so fraught with meaning, it’s important to get it right. As it turns out, the ideal handshake is actually pretty straightforward.

“For the best handshake with a peer, you want to have your hand perpendicular to the floor because it sends a message of parity,” explains Dr. Brown. “It says, ‘I am roughly your equal.’” He also advises matching the firmness of the other person’s grasp.

Rossi concurs. “The ideal handshake has the thumb pointing to the sky, [with hands] connecting web to web,” she says. “Have a snug, semi-firm handshake with three to five pumps, and then let go.”


Open to interpretation

But somewhere in the execution, things can go wrong. “It’s amazing how many educated, successful people at the pinnacle of the corporate ladder who otherwise have good social skills can mess up a handshake,” says Dr. Brown.

We’ve all encountered these unwelcome greetings, whether it’s the aggressive person who squeezes your hand so hard it goes numb, or the timid individual who offers limp fingers in salutation. These handshakes can send a message about their bearers, whether it’s accurate or not. What you may perceive as anxiety or aloofness based on that interaction may be something else entirely. Perhaps your colleague just realized he left his oven on at home or forgot to feed the dog.

Sometimes your body language might not accurately convey what you are feeling at a given time. Janine Driver, president of The Body Language Institute and author of the book You Can’t Lie to Me, explains, “You just have to understand how it is perceived [by others].”


The whole package

While the hands are the star of the show, the rest of your body is in on the act, whether you realize it or not. An ideal handshake is composed of many moving parts. One of the most important aspects is to make sure you are pointing your feet at the person with whom you are shaking hands. “We point our feet at people who command our respect,” explains Dr. Brown, who suggests angling your body slightly after a few seconds. “If you stay face to face, it can be too confrontational,” he says.

He adds that a few seconds’ worth of eye contact—not to be confused with staring—is also important for building rapport during an initial handshake and the subsequent conversation. “When body language experts say eye contact, they mean [an area] halfway down your nose and up into your forehead and an inch on each side,” he says. Add a sincere smile, one that extends to the eyes and reveals only the top teeth, for maximum impact.

While the person with more seniority generally initiates a handshake, that doesn’t always happen. Then, says Rossi, “Get your hand out there.”

At the end of the meeting, be sure offer a final handshake that equals the quality of the initial one. “Your last handshake has to be just as great and memorable as the first,” stresses Driver. “You need to think about it.”

These seemingly small gestures can go a long way in establishing meaningful and productive relationships, both professionally and personally. Sums up Rossi, “If we can show respect to others, we show up as credible and confident. If we don’t, we show up as awkward and uneasy. That’s it in a nutshell.”