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The all-important handshake

Student Career Placement Consultant

Two people shake hands (Photo via http://www.flickr.com/people/81752595@N00)A recent post about the role your personal appearance can play in the job interview process prompted one of my former students to write to me with a suggestion for another topic pertaining to the interview.

She related a story about a personal experience where she was a finalist for a job she was very excited about. Three women conducted the interview, and when it was over my former student politely shook hands with all three women before leaving.

When she didn’t get the job, she asked if they could tell her what qualifications she lacked or what she needed to do to improve her chances at getting similar positions. She was told that the third woman in the interview thought her handshake was too “wimpy” and that she didn’t hold the handshake long enough!

Just the day after I heard that story, I was in a meeting with a student who wanted to get some advice from me about his career choices. At the end of the meeting, the student stood, said goodbye, and shook my hand. He gripped my hand so tightly that I thought my fingers were going to break, and my hand hurt for at least five minutes after he left.

With those two anecdotes now prominent in my mind, I decided it was a good idea to write a post about handshake etiquette. I did research to make sure I covered all the current thoughts on the handshake and came up with some interesting suggestions:

  • Make sure your hand is dry! Nobody likes a damp handshake, and if you’re nervous, it’s very likely that your hand could sweat a bit. As you enter a room, or at the end of the interview, briefly put your hand in your pocket or behind your back and then discreetly wipe your hand on your clothes just before the shake. (Note: If you’re at an event other than an interview, and you have a cold drink in your hand, keep the drink in your left hand so that your right hand stays dry.)

  • Make your grip firm, but not too tight. You want to demonstrate confidence, not strength. One good piece of advice that I read suggested holding the hand as if it were a door handle that you were about to open.

  • Don’t hold on for too long, but don’t let go too soon. It can be tough to estimate the right length of time for a handshake (as my former student learned the hard way), but a handshake should really only last for two or three seconds.

  • Shake from the elbow, not the shoulder. You’re just trying to connect, not pull them in, so focus on just using the lower part of your arm during the handshake.

  • There’s a “pumping” action that goes with a handshake. One or two “pumps” should be sufficient.

  • Keep in mind that you are likely to shake hands twice: at the beginning of an interview (when you’re introducing yourself or being introduced) and at the end (when you say goodbye ... and thank you!).

  • In a job interview, let the other person initiate the handshake. You may find some disagreement about this as initiating the handshake is seen as a power move. Let the interviewer control the handshake so you don’t seem overly pushy.

  • In America, the type of handshake I have described here is very common, but there are other countries and other cultures where the rules are different. If you know that you will be meeting with someone from another country or culture, do some research about the handshake etiquette that will be familiar to them. If you don’t know ahead of time, but realize as soon as you meet someone, that they are from another country or culture, wait for that person to initiate the handshake and follow their lead.

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