What’s in a man’s handshake?

As events at Old Trafford at the weekend showed, handshakes are important. The only question is, why?

If you’ve been on Mars for the last few days you may have missed the fact that Liverpool striker Luis Suarez failed to shake the hand of Manchester United defender Patrice Evra before Saturday’s game at Old Trafford.

To say Suarez’s refusal to clasp hands with the man he was found guilty of racially abusing in a previous encounter caused a bit of a fuss is something of an understatement. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called Suarez a “disgrace”, while Liverpool counterpart Kenny Dalglish seethed with indignation during a post-match interview in front of the cameras. Both Suarez and Dalglish later apologised.

Away from the footballing ramifications, what the incident demonstrates is just how powerful a statement a handshake – or lack of one – can be. International agreements are finalised by a coming together of hands, but international incidents are caused by one hand’s untimely withdrawal.

So why the significance, and just what is in a man’s handshake? Here’s all you need to know – as explained by the experts.

The history of the handshake

Nobody’s quite sure when – or why – humans started to shake hands as a greeting or as a way of cementing a relationship. Some experts have speculated that, in medieval times, approaching another man with an outstretched arm and open palm was a way of showing that you came in peace, without a weapon to hand.

Others have argued that certain primates use open hand gestures that look like the precursors of a handshake. A dominant male will offer an open hand to calm a stressed or anxious subordinate, for example.

Whatever the precise origin, handshakes seem to have become popular in Britain in the 1500s. Today, research has discovered that the average person shakes hands nearly 15,000 times in his life, and that men shake hands nearly three times as much as women.

Some men fear the handshake

A handshake seems a simple enough act, but the same research found that it is a gesture (as the Suarez affair shows) fraught with significance. The study, from 2010, found that up to 70% of us admit to having had crises of confidence when it comes to performing the act of shaking hands.

That may be partly due to not knowing whether the occasion warrants a handshake or not, but it’s also partly because your handshake style says so much about you.

According to Professor Geoffrey Beattie, a psychologist at the University of Manchester, “the human handshake is one of the most crucial elements of impression formation and is used as a source of information for making a judgment about another person. A handshake reveals aspects of the personality of the person giving it – for example, a soft handshake can indicate insecurity, whilst a quick-to-let-go handshake can suggest arrogance.”

John F Kennedy knew how important a handshake is. The former US president commissioned a study to find the most effective handshake for a politician, which resulted in his signature double handshake – the left hand cupped under the clasped right. We can assume that this unique shake conferred everything an aspiring president wanted to convey: authority, honesty and trustworthiness.

The non-handshake

It’s because offering your hand confers so much positive meaning that not offering it has become a powerful symbol of disdain.

Effectively, Suarez was telling Evra how little he thought about his protestations of honesty, as well as refusing to calm any concerns Evra might have had about the meeting and sending a very public message that he was not party to any of the attempts at reconciliation the two clubs had been attempting in the buildup to the game.

In other words, he was refusing to put the pair’s race row behind him. Unfortunately for him, public sympathy was with Evra, and the gesture backfired.

Wayne Bridge would not put an alleged affair between his former fiancée and John Terry behind him either, refusing to shake Terry’s hand before a match between Manchester City and Chelsea in 2010.

And for entirely different reasons French president Nicolas Sarkozy refused the proffered hand of David Cameron at a European summit in December. Sarkozy was angry at the British prime minister and showed it in the most public way he could. His non-handshake said: I like you so little that I’m prepared to ignore the normal conventions of political life to make sure you know it.

It even happened to President Obama, perhaps the most powerful man in the world. In 2009, during a visit to Moscow, he was introduced to a line of Russian politicians, every one of whom refused his offered handshake.

Is refusing a handshake a good tactic? Your view may depend on where your sympathies lie in each case, but it certainly seems to be a risky one. Suarez has been roundly condemned, and while the concerted effort to humiliate Obama made him look a bit silly, his tormentors looked petty and vindictive.

How to shake on it

What is clear is that shaking or refusing to shake hands makes a powerful statement. It can mark the start of a relationship, the end to hostilities, or exactly the opposite. That’s why handshakes are so vital to the smooth running of the world of men.

So next time you move to shake someone’s hand remember its significance, but don’t be nervous. The rules of a good handshake are simple. Have a dry hand, use a complete grip (don’t just brush fingers), and be firm but not too firm.

Then, says Professor Beattie, “approximately three shakes, with a medium level of vigour, held for no longer than two to three seconds, with eye contact kept throughout and a good natural smile… make up the basic constituent parts for the perfect handshake.”

So shake confidently and shake well. Oh, and there’s one more rule. If the Suarez incident has taught us anything at all it’s that, on pretty much any occasion, and whether you like the person or not, you really should shake.


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