Let’s shake on it

Greetings! Namaste! Nice to meet you! Over thousands of years, people in all cultures have developed rituals for acknowledging each other. In many Asian societies, they often bow. In Europe, you might see a hug or an air-kiss. In the U.S., we shake hands.

Among people who already know each other, a handshake might signify agreement on the terms of a deal. Or the end of a game, contest or fight. But before any of that happens, the handshake is the preferred ritual for two strangers to acknowledge each other and size each other up. Nowhere is this more ingrained than in a job interview.

Think about all the messages you want to convey in that crucial first meeting: You want to come across as secure, but not smug; confident, but not cocky; enthusiastic, but not crazed; relatable but not overly familiar. It’s a tightrope.

Whatever first impressions you create with your handshake will color the interviewer’s impression of everything else that transpires. If your handshake says you’re confident and capable, everything else you say and do will be filtered through that lens. Execute a handshake well, and your message is reinforced. Do it poorly, and your message is undermined.

While handshakes have agreed-upon meanings, they also have agreed-upon techniques. So keep these pointers in mind:

  • Dry your hands: Maybe they ran out of paper towels in the bathroom; maybe your hands naturally sweat when you’re stressed. But make sure your hands are as dry as possible. A handkerchief or paper towel in the pocket usually does the trick.

  • Go for equality: Ignore the unhelpful and debunked adage about exerting dominance by literally gaining the upper hand. You should meet the other person’s hand at a roughly equal angle. Adjust for height differences with your elbow or shoulder.

  • Avoid the death grip: Calculate the firmness of your grasp in advance, and don’t overcompensate. You don’t want to crush anyone’s hand, and you don’t want your grip to feel wimpy either. Think of what you’re trying to convey nonverbally: confidence, competence and comfort.

  • Adjust for regional or cultural variations. In some parts of the country, a handshake might feel more enthusiastic and might last longer. In an urban jungle, more polished. In some cultures, handshakes are more gentle than in the U.S. A few generations ago, women were assumed (expected!) to have weak handshakes in some environments. You can safely discard that assumption now.

  • Look ‘em in the eye. This takes practice. There’s no need to sear your white-hot gaze into the other person’s eyes. Yet you do want to focus on the other person—not some other object in the room. A slight well-timed nod might help. The message here is that the other person has your undivided attention, and you’re fully engaged.

  • Never probe: If you’re in the habit of using your index or middle finger to probe the other person’s palm or wrist, lose that habit. It’s considered, at best, unpleasant (at worst, downright gross). It gains you nothing and could sink your chances before you utter a word.

  • Avoid cupping and pumping: Don’t meet the other person’s hand with both of yours. And definitely don’t pump up-and-down. If the vibe feels right in the moment, you can use your non-shake hand to gently touch the other person’s elbow or shoulder.

  • Take your cue from the other person: Firmness, duration and other handshake variables work both ways. You want to show off your own technique, but don’t hesitate to match the other person’s style or quirks—especially if the other person comes from a culture or area that differs from yours.

The time to think long and hard about your handshake is before you need to deploy it. Practice in advance to gain enough confidence to execute it flawlessly and automatically. And even if your execution is not quite perfect, remember you’ll probably have an opportunity at the end of the meeting to get it right.