The Handshake: Not Just a Greeting, more a Power Game!

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.”
how-to-arm-wrestleWithin the business context, when shaking hands there are six main ways of offering the hand and each one has implicit psychological meaning & interpretation:

somos21.     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 towaHorizontal handshakerds 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.

glove handshake3.     The Glove: This is where one person puts their left hand on top of the “normal” handshake thereby trapping the other person’s hand. It is another way of showing who actually has “The upper hand”!

4.    The double glove: This is the response to the previous item (the glove) The Double glove handshakeperson 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!

hand on upper arm

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 hand on shouldertheir 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


About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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5 Responses to The Handshake: Not Just a Greeting, more a Power Game!

  1. Rae Cook says:

    Awesome level of detail here, Ian. Thanks!
    Que bueno que presentes tantas detalles, Ian. !Gracias!

  2. Very interesting article. As stated, the cultural context is “European, North American, Australasian and other areas that share similar cultural characteristics,” which generally indicates male-dominated business meetings; however, I would be interested in an article that addresses how to shake hands, and how to respond to offered handshakes, from a business woman’s perspective. I’ve observed the “spear” offered by some women, but it seems less dominant and more of a “you may kiss my hand” gesture. I prefer the “normal” handshake, and find myself getting annoyed with what I perceive as a weak, overly feminine style, especially when the offered hand seems to have no grip whatsoever.
    I like the suggested responses to the “spear” and the “glove,” although the “double-glove” response might not be preferred by women who are not inclined to increase physical contact with a man who has “gloved” them.
    I am very curious about how to appropriately respond to the “hand on bicep” and “hand on shoulder” greetings, without being rude. When a man uses this kind of handshake with me, I tend to bristle and feel uncomfortable, especially if it’s a first meeting. It’s exceedingly rare for a woman to try this kind of handshake with me, but if it happens in the future, I’ll try reciprocating, and see if that changes the tone of the subsequent interaction. Thank you for an interesting article!

    • ianbrownlee says:

      Hi Wendy,
      I am glad that you found the article interesting.
      As I live & work mainly in Europe, I have noticed that, over the past few years, there has been a great increase in the number of female directors & executive officers in both nationl & international organizations and the number is increasing every year.
      In terms of the “Spear” – this ususally tends to be a direct, straighter, more rigid type of gesture while the “Regal kiss my hand” gesture seems to more curved and presented in a slower, gentler “lady-like” fashion. I have observed this type of gesture being used by more “refined” (or pretentious?) European women.

      The “double-glove” is great for creating uncertainty in the mind of the person who has “gloved” you – they do not expect this response and do not know how to respond! – one (psychological power) point to you!

      The “hand on bicep/ shoulder” are usually used by people who have a kinesthetic (preferred) representation system: they operate on emotion, touch, taste and smell and value personal relationships highly. If you copy the gesture they use, you are reflecting their representation system and therefore “like” them which means that they form an “emotional” link with you. Even though you don’t like the “hand on bicep”, if it helps you achieve your objectives and it only lasts for a second or two, why not accept it.

      In some countries, like Spain, there is a tendency to kiss people that are unknown – even in a business context. Many people do not like it so a great response to avoid being kissed is to hold your right arm straight down by your side, lock the elbow into your side and raise your forearm & hand into the normal handshake position. Do NOT extend it towards the person. If your elbow is locked and rigid against your side, there is no way that the person can get close enough to kiss you.
      Remember, Power is given. Control is taken. So take control from the very beginning of the interction.
      Hope this is of use.
      Have a great summer,

  3. O. Rowan says:

    Forgive me, but I disagree. The glove, at least here in Mexico where I train is often done by women and it is a kind gesture. A few times women who I barely know, but have heard of, have done this, and I have done it back, both of us smiling. Especially if it an older woman. I do it as a sign of respect and affection. Sometimes a kiss follows. You didn’t even touch on eye contact, which can change the whole dynamic. This is just the first part of the initial dance, I have also observed the hand on shoulder between men who may not be close friends, but definitely like each other and it is common knowledge in our company. Perhaps it is an across the ocean attitude I don’t know. Cheers.

    • ianbrownlee says:

      The first three paragraphs of the article define the context, culture and clusters involved and Mexico is not included in the list. There are always exception when discussing NVC which is why it is vital to define the previousl mentioned areas. In terms of hands-on-shoulders, they are often used as anchoring devices by people with a knowledge on NLP or ericksonian hypnosis.

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