First Impression

Body language is a form of non verbal communication, ranging from a smile to show happiness to a giant foam hand extending the index finger to show that “we’re #1”. Albert Mehrabian, a well known name in the field of human communication, found in two studies done in 1967 that in face to face communication, words alone account for only 7% of our decision of where or not to like the other person, with 38% relying on tone of voice, and 55% being totally non verbal. Prof. Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who helped to develop the interpretation of body language, found similar results in a study of his own; citing that the average speaker only talks an average of 10 – 11 minutes each day, with an average sentence being only 2.5 seconds, and additionally that non verbal communication accounts for roughly 65% of all communication.

Everyone has heard that old adage “first impressions are lasting impressions.” It’s been stated that it takes just 5 seconds for our brains to judge and finish our initial impression of a person we meet for the first time. Taking into account that a handshake typically lasts 2 – 3 seconds, the message that is sent in a handshake could arguably be the most important aspect in any face to face conversation, possibly even more important than the conversation itself. For those of you reading this before meeting your girlfriend/boyfriends parents for the first time, going to a job interview, or driving back to your home town for a high school reunion these facts may have you a bit nervous. But don’t fret, below is all the information you need to know and study in order to nail that all important first impression.

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The Palm

The palm plays a large role in the language of the handshake. The act of shaking another person’s hand actually dates back to the cavemen. When cavemen would meet they would show one another their open palms in order to prove that they came unarmed. It is commonly believed in body language that an upturned palm is a sign of submissiveness, while the down turned palm is a sign of dominance. Based on this principle, a dominant handshake would therefore, upon initial grasp, rest in a downward palm position, turning the reciprocal palm to the upward, submissive position. The converse of this is when the initiators hand is offered palm up; this is meant to provide the receiving party control or a feeling of control in the subsequent conversation. In a study of 54 successful senior managers it was revealed that 42 of them initiated the handshake first and also used a dominant handshake


  It’s equally important to take note of the stance when a handshake is extended. If you’ve ever received a knuckle grinder you may have noticed, through the pain in your hand, that you found it hard to keep your balance through the duration of the handshake. This was because chances are you were standing as you naturally do, with your feet an average width apart and in-line with your shoulders. If you were to look down, past your crushed hand, you’d be likely to notice that the other person was not in a similar stance. More often than not his right foot would have been a step towards you, because this causes leverage and allows for a much tighter grasp and ultimately a much more powerful hand shake. The opposite of course is the right leg positioned a step backwards, away from the target of the hand shake. This would provide very poor leverage and therefore a subpar handshake. The best advice for a good handshake stance is to size up your surroundings; while a strong, parallel with your shoulders stance is recommended, if you end up on the other side of someone trying to squeeze the life out of your hand, your only defense is to take a step forward and try to match it.


Some Types and Meanings

Body language specialists have been studying the subtleties of the handshake for some time now and have a vast database of the different types with different meanings, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll only mention a few of these . There’s the fingertip grasp, which is believed to be the work of someone who lacks confidence, the arm pull, which is up for debate between over-compensation and a natural, personal demeanor, and the dead fish, which is said to show weakness in character.


The main thing to keep in mind is that body language is just an extension of one’s own voice and should be used as such. And for those of you getting ready for a job interview, it easy to know the right and wrong way to go about something (I mean no one wants to receive a dead fish handshake) and as long as you know what to avoid the rest will just come naturally. So the next time you meet someone new, I suggest you try some of the above methods or come up with your own style and you might be surprised at what you’ll find.