Handshakes: The Good, The Bad, and The Clammy

Closeup of White and Black shaking hands over a deal
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“Only truthful hands write poems,” wrote Paul Celan. “I cannot see any difference between a good handshake and a poem.”

The Romanian poet may be right, but here’s the rub: some poems are great, and others stink. So too handshakes.

Psychology Today has published dozens of articles examining the meaning behind a handshake. I’ve read none of them. I am, however, well into my seventh decade of giving and receiving handshakes. Here’s what I’ve come to believe.

A handshake can mean different things

Between two trustworthy people, a handshake can seal the deal of the century.

It can also mean, “Welcome,” or “Bye, see you soon.”

A mutually good handshake may be the best icebreaker.

A handshake can be the equivalent of a brief but meaningful conversation. Take the time-honored tradition of opposing hockey players shaking hands after a grueling playoff series. Here’s what those handshakes actually say: “That was some good hockey, eh? Look, I’m sorry about butt-ending you in the ribs back in Game 5, but, hey, I wanted to win just as much as you did, right? Let’s have a beer soon, OK?”

A handshake says a lot, so make it count.

Eight steps to a classic handshake

The formula for a high-quality handshake is simple, and it holds true for both genders:

Have a look on your face that says, “Happy to see you.”
Maintain eye contact.
Join hands to the web between the thumb and index finger.
Squeeze with moderate firmness, which by one estimate is 30 pounds per square inch. (Not sure how you will measure that, but it’s good trivia.)
Squeeze for two or three seconds; four is a stretch.
Move your hand up and down, about 3 inches at most.
Say something nice, such as “Good to see you.” In New York, “Howyadoin’?” is acceptable.
Break cleanly, though not abruptly.
A solid shake (Photo by M. Turton)

It seems simple but, like a golf swing, so much can go wrong. Here are some species of handshakes to avoid, along with a few survival tips.

The Crusher

This person, usually — though not always — a man, inflicts pain with a squeeze so extreme it’s like he’s trying to open a jar whose lid is glued shut. We resent the crusher but can’t bring ourselves to say, “Lighten up!”

The Limp Rag

Known as “the dead fish” in some circles, this shake is so flaccid, so weak, so quaggy, you’ll want to reunite with the crusher.

Look Ma, Two Hands

A split-second in, this person places his or her left hand on top of the ongoing handshake. This ill-conceived method, especially if employed during those hockey handshakes, would incite violence.

The Clinger

Delivered by someone desperate for a meaningful relationship, this handshake feels like it will never end. Empathy is called for, unless the clinger is also a crusher.

The Halfway

This person grasps only your fingers. I’d rather endure two Crushers and a Limp Rag than one Halfway. If you encounter this person a second time, be assertive. Quickly slide your hand into his, forcing him to commit.

The Texas Oil Pump

This handshake is common only in West Texas. The culprit pumps his or her hand in an amplitude measured in feet, dragging you along for the ride. I once suffered a partial shoulder dislocation from a Texas Oil Pump.

Eyes Right

While the crusher can cause physical harm, this move may leave emotional scars. In the middle of a handshake, this person breaks eye contact and looks around in search of someone more interesting.

The Jackhammer

Rare, though no less irritating, this handshake goes up and down only about half an inch but at a ludicrous speed. Excessive caffeine is often the cause.

The Stand-Up

In mid-handshake, this comedian tickles your palm using the tip of a finger. Never funny, although thankfully even less common than The Jackhammer.

Daunting questions remain

Can the outcome ever be good when two Crushers meet? When Limp Rags shake hands, do they both enjoy it? If a Texas Oil Pump greets a Look Ma, Two Hands, who is more likely to be injured? When two people share a secret handshake, is it really a secret?

The final word

James D. Wilson, chairman of the Savvy Turtle clothing company, gets the last word: “Initiate a proper handshake and the whole world opens up for you.”

This article first appeared in The Highlands Current

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