A Handshake Is Worth a Thousand Words

Medically Reviewed by Merle Diamond, MD

Aug. 7, 2000 -- People who want to make a good first impression should check their handshake -- especially those who usually offer their hand like it's a wet fish, or think a knee-buckling, bone-crusher grasp is a positive sign.

While it's fairly common knowledge that people draw conclusions from a person's handshake -- etiquette books have stressed it for years -- it's rarely been formally studied. Researchers at the University of Alabama recently investigated what impressions could be garnered from a handshake, whether a person's personality influenced his or her handshake, and whether gender played a role in what handshakes implied.

In the study, reported in the July edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers recruited 112 students for an unspecified psychological study without telling them that handshaking was part of the research. Rather, the students were told they would undergo four separate experiments and should expect to be greeted with and dismissed with handshakes and other formalities by the experimenters. "Handshakes are automatic and don't change without conscious effort," researcher William F. Chaplin, PhD, tells WebMD. "It was important that the subjects shake hands as they normally do." Chaplin is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama.

The researchers had the students sit in a large central room with smaller rooms off to the sides. Each of the four researchers -- two men and two women, who underwent a month's handshaking training -- stood next to one of the smaller rooms, and the students -- each in turn -- went to each room. The experimenters greeted them by shaking hands, then led them into one of the smaller rooms to complete one of the four questionnaires which dealt with how they would describe their own personalities. As the students worked on the tests, the researchers rated each participant's handshake on eight scales, and also rated their impressions of each participant's personality.

The scales included:

  • Strength
  • Completeness of grip
  • Dryness
  • Temperature
  • Vigor
  • Duration
  • Eye contact
  • Texture

When a participant had finished completing the first questionnaire, he or she was thanked by the experimenter, who shook the participant's hand. The participant then sat in the large room and waited for a turn at the next station. By the end of the experiment, each participant had shaken hands twice with all four researchers and completed all four questionnaires.

After correlating questionnaires and handshaking scores, the researchers were able to conclude:

  • A firm handshake was related positively to extroversion and emotional expressiveness and negatively to shyness and neuroticism.
  • A firm handshake was also positively related to openness to experience, but only for women.
  • Handshake characteristics jived with the impressions of the researchers.

Chaplin says the results show that a handshake reveals personality traits, both through self-evaluation and the impression from others, and can predict specific behaviors. "This may have strong ramifications for women and may be an effective form of self-promotion."

Chaplin says that while in many instances an assertive woman may be considered "pushy," a firm handshake provides an opportunity for women to show confidence and assertiveness and is judged more positively by others than a more typical feminine handshake. "This is one area where women don't have to worry about being too forward," says Chaplin. "A firm handshake provides women an opportunity to make a favorable first impression."

Jacqueline Whitmore, from the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida, tells WebMD the study proves what she has long taught business executives and diplomats. "Nothing turns people off more than a wimpy grasp or a bone crusher, and they do remember it and draw lasting impressions. In formal settings and business meetings, a woman offering her limp hand demurely is not a good move."

Whitmore says that in today's business world, it no longer matters who offers the hand first. For women with long slender hands who may be concerned about greeting a man with hands that resemble ham hocks, she suggests the following:

"Thrust your hand straight out with the thumb pointing up. Aim the web between your index finger and thumb for the same area of his hand. This way he won't engulf your entire hand."