As a body language expert, I start with a simple exercise when speaking at conferences.
I ask audience members to stand up and shake hands with several people near them.
As they go through the exercise, some are smiling. Some are serious. Still others chose to express themselves with a fist bump or an embrace. When they finish, I ask one simple question:
‘How many of you can tell me what your partners were doing with their left arm and left hand during the handshake?’
First Impressions or Worst Impressions?
Because it’s not a question they expect to hear, I’ve got their attention.
With the possible exception of that first glance, your handshake is the most important part of making a positive first impression. Touch is a powerful component when creating a first impression.
If you do it right, its significance is diminished. But if you screw it up, it will be the most memorable part of the encounter.
Yet, despite the impact of these cues, there is an even more accurate indicator of attitude and intent in a handshake. And it’s something nobody even notices!
Handshakes Are Information Rich
There are many things you can learn from a handshake. For example, the appearance of the hand, the temperature of the hand, its texture, and the firmness of the grasp tell you something about the person you are meeting.
The six different styles of handshake provide information about that person’s perception of his or her social status and personal power. How many can you name accurately?
But, despite all of this, the most telling indicator in a handshake may just be the muscle response of the left arm because it’s not controlled consciously. The behavior of the left arm during a handshake may just be the most accurate indicator of attitude and intent.
Whether in academic work at the university, consulting with various clients, or speaking at conferences around the country, I’ve always looked for body language cues few people think to consider. It’s why I refer to my work as finding The Hidden Message.
What’s in a Handshake?
‘There are four behaviors that make up a handshake,’ I tell the audience. ‘One, you must lead with the right hand. Two, make direct eye contact. Three, you smile. And four, you give a verbal greeting. If any of these elements is missing, the experience is strained.’
Because we may consciously control the right hand in a hand shake, the information we project may be calculated to create a particular impression which may be, well, less than genuine. Movement of the left arm, however, is not within our conscious control so its more emotionally revealing and more emotionally accurate.
What is The Hidden Message in a Handshake?
There are four general response patterns that occur with the left arm during a handshake. Before I describe them, realize that if the person you’re meeting is holding something in their left hand, it’s a contaminating factor. It invalidates accurate assessment. Even if they’re just holding a pen or pencil in their left hand, the assessment is compromised.
The first response pattern is by far the most common. Expect to see it roughly 60 to 65% of the time.
If you shake hands with someone, their left arm is hanging down by their side and it remains unmoving during the handshake, it indicates neutrality. The lack of movement implies lack of bias. They’re neither particularly positive or negative about either meeting you or the situation in which you are meeting.
Do Handshakes Really Have a Hidden Message?
The second reaction during a handshake suggests that the person you’re meeting finds you to be likeable. As you shake hands, if their left arm moves upwards and towards you, it’s reasonable to conclude that they find you to be likeable. In fact, its likely that the amount of movement correlates with the impact you have on that person.
In general, you should expect to see this response pattern about 20 to 25% of the time. Some people have physical characteristics such as an especially charismatic smile that may result in an especially high number of such responses.
Can You Spot Deception in a Handshake?
I asked a national sales manager for a financial services company what body language indicator had been the most influential thing he had learned from working with me for over 15 years.
He extended his right toward me and, as he did, he positioned his left arm in the way that suggests deception,’ I told the audience, illustrating the behavior as I spoke.
I’ve only seen that behavior eight times in the past three years, he went on to say, but each time it was from a potential client who wanted a cash payment under the table to do business with my firm.