How to shake hands (and what to do instead of a handshake)

Handshakes are taken very seriously in the business world – too hard, and you’re a go-getting alpha-type who would sell their own granny to get to the top; too weak and you’re a simpering subservient, simply asking to be crushed, probably by someone whose handshake is way too hard.

But forget all that anyway, because the pandemic has all but killed off the handshake, leading to a confused system of fist bumps, elbow taps, and meek waves.

So, before we get into how to give a professional handshake (it will be back), let’s take a look at some alternatives…

What are the post-Covid alternatives to shaking hands?

Although we’re well past the worst of what the pandemic had throw at us, we’re still at a cautious stage in proceedings, which means going in for a handshake might still be met with a surprised rejection.

So, here are some alternatives to the good, old-fashioned handshake.

  • A nod and a smile – a greeting older than the handshake itself, the nod and smile usually surfaces when you bump into someone you might know, but not well enough for a full hello or a stop-and-chat. Also used as an acknowledgement of an embarrassing situation, such as being stuck in a really long queue or bumping into the same person several times on different aisles in the supermarket.
  • A head dip – basically the same as the nod and the smile, but without the smile.
  • Namaste – A centuries-old greeting beloved of yoga-enthusiasts everywhere. Simply press your palms and fingers together at your chest while bowing slightly. Basically, this emoji with a head dip 🙏
  • The fist-bump – probably the most common alternative to the handshake, just tap your fist onto your opposite number and you have the Covid-friendly handshake. Beware of people going in for an elbow tap.
  • The elbow tap – basically the fist bump but with your elbows. Watch out for people going in for a fist bump.

OK, so back to the handshakes.

Thankfully, most of us see the handshake for what it really is – a way to greet another person, signify an agreement, or settle a deal – and not some way to assert authority over another person. If you see the handshake as a power-play, don’t bother leaving any of your watermarked, raised-lettering business cards behind as I show you the door.

Whatever your thoughts on the handshake, there’s no escaping the fact it leaves a lasting impression on people – so what does your handshake say about you?

What does your handshake say about you?

Limp – If you have a limp handshake – we’re talking the type of handshake where no pressure whatsoever is applied, you just sort of meekly let the other person grab your hand – this is seen as a sign of weakness and subservience. So at least try to reciprocate the grab – a little pressure is never a bad thing in business.

Vice-like – If, on the other hand, you apply the sort of pressure usually reserved for grabbing the neck of a wine bottle when the cork is stuck, this will make out that you’re either an aggressive person, or you’re trying to overcompensate – neither of which are great character traits. And if you go in for the bone-crushing handshake to try and assert your authority over someone, then you need to have a word with yourself – in short, you’re an idiot.

Elaborate – The elaborate handshake routine, involving any number of first bumps, finger tingles and high-fives is for kids. If you’re out of school and still doing this, you need to pack it in, it’s pointing to a complete lack of maturity and awareness.

Too long – Your handshake may be simple and have just the right amount of pressure, but if you hold on to the other person’s hand for even a fraction too long, you’re giving off signals that you’re desperate for something. Hang on for more than a few seconds and things just get plain awkward, so keep your handshake down to two seconds, then release.

Too short – On the flip-side, if your handshake is too short, it gives off the impression that you have no time for the other person – so why are you even bothering to shake their hand, you arrogant, duplicitous fool?
Side eyes – Right, here’s the twist – a good handshake isn’t all about the hand, it requires a certain amount of eye contact and, ideally, a smile. A handshake is a friendly greeting, remember?! If you don’t at least make eye contact with the other person, it says you may be shy, or insecure, or suspicious, or maybe all three – what sort of walking disaster would that make you?!

How to give the perfect handshake

Check out this short video from Robert Phipps, body language expert, on how to give the perfect handshake.

And always remember to do the following when shaking someone’s hand…

  • Keep good posture
  • Make eye contact
  • Hold your right hand out
  • Give a good firm-but-not-too-firm shake
  • Don’t linger for longer than about two seconds
  • Try to smile
  • Greet the other person and repeat their name – this is a great technique to employ if you usually struggle to remember the names of people you’re introduced to
  • Stand up when shaking hands – staying seated can show a lack of respect for the other person, particularly if the other person is stood up.

How to shake hands in different countries

If you do business around the world, then these rules will change for every different country you visit – in the US they like a firm grip and an introduction, in China a lighter grip with a slight bow is best, and the handshake can be followed by a hug in Mexico.

This handy infographic from Business Insider shows how to shake hands around the world – it could be worth keeping a copy with you….