Since Non verbal communication should always be discussed on the basis of three key elements: Culture, Context and Cluster, this article is written with the following areas in mind:
Culture: European, North American, Australasian and other areas that share similar cultural characteristics.
Context: Business meetings.
Cluster: In addition to the handshake, we are assuming that there is appropriate gaze; orientation, proximity and posture as expected in this context.
Please note that people usually shake hands instinctively and without prior planning or consideration of the potential psychological consequences so we have to consider other elements of the communication before reaching any conclusions about them.
Nowadays, in a great many cultures we use the handshake as a way of welcoming or greeting a person. This handshake comes from the old tradition of showing ones strength via the use of arm-wrestling where the winner is the person who has their hand uppermost – in other words, they literally have “the upper hand.”
Within the business context, when shaking hands there are six main ways of offering the hand and each one has implicit psychological meaning & interpretation:
1. The “normal” handshake where the hand is offered at 90º to the body and is subconsciously perceived as a handshake between equals. It is a neutral interaction where neither person presumes to be superior to the other or seeks to dominate them.
2. The spear: This is when a person offers their hand palm down towards the other person – like thrusting a spear towards them. In Spain, it is like the final thrust used to kill the bull in a bullfight. People who use this type of gesture tend to be somewhat egotistical and like to dominate others. If the other person accepts this style of handshake, it means that their palm will be face upwards and they are subconsciously accepting that the other person literally has “the upper hand” and that they are subordinate to them! The solution to this behaviour is to take the hand and IMMEDIATELY turn it into the “normal” handshake position.
4. The double glove: This is the response to the previous item (the glove) The person who has their hand trapped places THEIR left hand on top of the other person’s left hand and thereby assumes the status of the person with the upper hand!
5. Hand on bicep: Some people, especially kinesthetics, like to shake hands with their right and, at the same time, use their left hand to firmly grasp the right biceps of the person they are talking to. This action allows the kinesthetic to actual feel, and share, the physical power of the person and also indicates that they have the upper hand as it is, literally, above the hand of the other person.
6. Hand on shoulder: The final category is when one person places their left hand on the right shoulder of the other person. It may, in certain situations, be perceived as kindly or paternal however in business it may be perceived as indicating that this person literally has the upper hand.
Frequently, this converts into a power game. People start at, for example, number 2 and then each participant may escalate the “game” to the next level.
NEVER shake hands with anyone that you do not want to interact with such as door-to-door salesmen, beggars, Religious fanatics, etc. The mere act of shaking hands with someone instantly personalizes them and makes it psychologically much more difficult to break off the conversation.
It is vitally important in today’s competitive world that business people are aware of the psychological implications of their non verbal communication – from the VERY beginning of their interaction with other people. Remember: You NEVER have a second opportunity to create a first impression!
(C) Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, July, 2013.
Some images have been supplied by:Freedigitalphotos.net