The Business of Handshakes

The Business of Handshakes

The History

For nearly as long as hands have been around, the handshake has existed as a way to help broker relationships. The handshake as a symbol of trust and good nature supposedly has it’s beginnings in Ancient Greece. It was used to show that neither person was carrying a weapon. By presenting an empty palm, an individual communicated that they were peaceful. The Romans had their own take that involved grabbing the wrist to see that neither party had a knife up their sleeve. According to, some say the shaking aspect started in Medieval Europe. Knights wanted to shake loose any hidden weapons from the other person.

The Handshake Today

These days, the handshake isn’t quite as concerned with weapons as it may have been in the past, but it is still very much a gesture of good faith and trust. However, it’s more than just historical tradition that makes this gesture effective. There’s science! The neurochemical oxytocin, aka “the cuddle hormone,” is released during person-to-person contact. The effects of oxytocin create a sense of closeness, attachment, and intimacy in the individual. Additionally, it relieves stress and promotes generosity.

When it comes to business dealings, establishing trust early on is vital. A firm handshake coupled with eye contact can be an effective way to do this. An individual’s concerns with the task at hand won’t magically be repaired with this gesture, but it will encourage a familiarity that will help facilitate a comfortable discussion. Remember: oxytocin. A well-executed handshake will also demonstrate Emotional Intelligence (EI), a trait that employers are beginning to value as much as IQ.

Surprisingly there is still even a shadow of a debate about whether or not women should choose the hug or the handshake in a formal setting. To me, the idea that gender should define what gesture you greet with is completely archaic. A handshake is a way to show yourself as open and friendly and on equal terms with everyone you work with.

A Potential Threat

The fist bump recently came to light as a more hygienic alternative to the handshake. Due to the amount and time of skin-to-skin contact the handshake creates, the fist bump was praised for its brevity and minimal use of surface area. However, the majority of medical professionals decided not to change their handshaking ways, so the fist bump’s hopes of a professional career were cast aside.

Don’t put me in the camp of those who coined the phrase “terrorist fist jab” after seeing Obama and his wife share a fist bump; I’m all for a variety of greetings.

A Good Handshake

Some characteristics of a good handshake are seemingly abstract. For example, how firm is too firm? Well, If you’ve been gauging by how many tears your counterpart is crying, that’s too firm. If you’re counterpart is immediately washing their hands afterward, you’re too clammy. Some good terminology for proper contact is “web-to-web and palm-to-palm.” The ‘web’ refers to the flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Meanwhile, while you’re busy worrying about whether or not your hand is doing the right thing, don’t forget to the most important part: eye contact. Happy shaking!


Reed Parker graduated with a degree in English from Boise State University. He enjoys writing, playing the banjo, and telling bad jokes. He once waited up all night, wondering where the sun went. Then it dawned on him.


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