The other day, a friend of mine shared on her Facebook page how there were so-called obligatory Life Skills classes at a New York school’s ninth grade. While thinking that it is sad that a lot of parents these days seem not to be able to teach those skills to their kids anymore or lack the time to do so, I found it quite wonderful that some teachers actually take their time to teach these skills. Among those even something like a simple handshake.
Well, let’s face it, a handshake is NOT simple. And whereas I was befuddled at first why anybody needed to be taught how to shake a hand, I berated myself quickly enough: Actually, outside doing business I found handshakes hardly common in countries of Anglo-Saxon tradition, whereas in my mother country, Germany, it is pretty common. So, it might be a good idea to teach the right approach. Because a handshake is probably the only part of our body language that gets physical with another being that might be a total stranger to us. And creates the first impression – and sometimes the last.
Handshakes are one of humankind’s ancient customs to show that you are coming in peace. Only an empty hand can shake another one properly. Of course, you could still backstab the other person with your other hand. But this is not about a movie scene about tribulation between gangsters.
In my lifetime (which is somewhere past its middle, most likely) I have shaken countless hands, and I had a few remarkable experiences that I don’t care to have repeated on me. The washcloth shake is one where the other person’s hand is simply as yielding and limp as, well, a washcloth – the impression is of somebody hiding away. Maybe they have a personality, but they don’t want you to make a guess. Well, guess what – most people don’t want to deal with these. The wringer handshake is basically that of a very self-impressed person who wants to show you who will have the upper hand in your relationship – if brain doesn’t help, brawn might. The thorny handshake was probably the most unique one I was ever given. Imagine you shake, but in the middle of your palm you get poked by one of the fingers, probably the pinky. My impression: Somebody desperately doesn’t want to get close and signals distance; subconsciously, probably. But it works. A caressing handshake (yes, there are males out there who still deem this doable) should be left to lovers and lovers only. A handshake should be firm and consensual as to duration.
But that is not all there is to a handshake. Actually, your whole body should be engaged. Your physical stance also tells a lot about your inner attitude. Slumped shoulders are a dead give-away for lack of inner countenance. A tilted head (often observed in women) could be misinterpreted as a submissive stance whereas it might simply be a posture of trying to be charming. My mother used to tell me: “Straighten your back, pull your shoulders back, hold your head high.” Excellent advice. Because you want to be treated as an equal by the person you are shaking hands with. No pride, no equal treatment. Last but not least, make eye contact. You don’t necessarily have to smile. It always depends on the situation. But eye-contact while shaking hands is a must. A peace contract is not working when one side is distracted. And a handshake is still, first and foremost, a sign of peace.
Is she finished now? No, she isn’t! Because a handshake also defines the hierarchy in a room. How often has an over-eager youth come up to me to shake my hand?! A no-go. The older person decides whether they want to shake hands or not. The woman decides whether she wants to shake a hand or not. The higher-ranking person decides whether to shake a hand or not.
Does one still kiss a hand or bow, respectively curtsy? It depends on the context. If you don’t know how to correctly kiss a hand, better leave it at a shake. Because unless you are lovers, your lips have no place on the back of a lady’s hand. There might be some other circumstances for hand kissing – if you don’t belong to the fold of the person whose hand is supposed to be kissed … just don’t! Same thing with bowing and curtsying. Unless you want to change your lifestyle and marry into aristocracy, you simply stand as your own sovereign.
So, this is why handshakes ought to be taught more and/or again. And the classical canon of manners, too. Because, modern and liberal as we may all feel, it still rules where it counts in life. And the difference between knowing how to or not can make or break a career. And nobody knows the marvelous places that their lives might lead them to. So, better be prepared.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.