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First Impressions – What’s in a Handshake?

As a woman, should your handshake be firm or slight? And what of duration, eye contact, and facial expression? Does it matter?

We have heard time and time again that first impressions are lasting impressions – so much so that business schools and etiquette classes focus on how to perfect this persona. The handshake is an integral part of this introductory process and a significant factor in creating a first impression. Certainly in the business world, the handshake is an initiator of communication and an important ritual. On the basis of this simple act of shaking hands, others pass judgment on our personality, strengths, weaknesses and relative power. Some of these assumptions are rooted in prejudice, others in habit or experience. Regardless, the first impression left does impact the way others view our capabilities and it is important that we understand and effectively manage the social signals that we send.

A friend recently introduced me to a new colleague, a woman with substantial experience and knowledge. We spoke for awhile – she shared some of her experiences in the field. She was witty, knowledgeable and would clearly contribute substantially to the team.

At the end of our conversation, we shook hands. I was immediately taken aback by her limp, clammy hand that offered no resistance to my own. I was equally as shocked by my reaction. The first impression slate was wiped clean with that handshake. No longer was the woman in front of me an experienced and knowledgeable manager. Rather, I had just met someone who lacked self-confidence, authority, and leadership capability.

Clearly I expected this woman to have a firm grip, not manly, just firm. She was, after all, assuming a position of considerable responsibility. She would be negotiating large contracts, managing staff, and working directly with shareholders. Keep in mind that she spoke well, and indeed others spoke well of her — so what was the basis of my expectation? I discussed this with many friends and colleagues, both men and women. Being a woman myself, I also examined the first impressions given by my handshake. The consensus seems to be that a firm and vigorous handshake conveys confidence. People in positions of authority must be self-confident. In this case, the dichotomy was baffling: on the one hand, I saw an intelligent and successful woman; on the other, an underlying lack of self confidence and authority.

It turns out that we were not alone in our assumptions based on the handshake and its importance in creating a good first impression. Studies have been undertaken to examine the psychological and social implications of various types of handshakes and in various social contexts. These studies, using men and woman as both participant and evaluator, specifically examined strength, vigor, duration and eye contact as factors contributing to the overall impression left by the handshake. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology found that a firm handshake does indeed help make a good first impression.

Since power often rests with those who are best able to manage how others view them, it is important that we understand the messages we convey using both verbal and non verbal languages. By understanding the implications of these self-images and the images we present as a first impression, we can better manage how others view us.

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