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When preparing for job interviews in the past, my recruiters have told me to ensure that I greet the interviewer with a "good firm" handshake.

Even so, outside of the work environment when I've given a good handshake to either an academic (when at university) or a professional (at social gatherings) they would compliment me on it: "A firm handshake you have there!"


Why is a 'good' handshake important?

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The idea is to project confidence and a good first impression (see eg Psych Study: Firm Handshakes Impress).

The article also notes:

In general, any attempt to assign a single, major specific meaning to a gesture or touch is an oversimplification

Regarding the comments you get: That might be genuine small talk/compliments, but I could also imagine that it is a subtle hint that your handshake might be too strong (if the question here were "How can I let someone know that their handshake is hurting me without upsetting them", saying "A firm handshake you have there" might very well be an answer).

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    Interesting, I always saw "A firm handshake you have there" as a compliment. – Bradley Wilson Aug 22 '17 at 8:32
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    @BradleyWilson That may depend on culture, but I wouldn't expect anyone to comment on a genuinely good handshake. Ever. - The mere fact that someone feels the need to comment on it hints to something being wrong. – I'm with Monica Aug 22 '17 at 10:14
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    @AlexanderKosubek FWIW in my experience the opposite is true. – Stephen S Aug 22 '17 at 20:27
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    I agree 100% that if people are commenting like that on a handshake, it's a hint, not a compliment. Because of my profession, I've offered my hand thousands of times. I've felt weak handshakes, strong ones, gentle ones, shy ones, perfunctory ones, etc. I only commented on a handshake once: when someone actually hurt me (and I think it might have been intentional, because they repeated it regardless of my comment.) – anongoodnurse Aug 23 '17 at 0:38
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    I never acknowledge a too-hard handshake, I find that the people who do that want to try and beat you in some sort of dominance contest. I just brush it off so they know they can't intimidate me. Maybe that's more common in America though, idk. – user2191 Aug 23 '17 at 14:57
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I found this scientific study by the Beckman Institute in Illinois. It is all about first impressions, see the first sentence:

"New neuroscience research is confirming an old adage about the power of a handshake: strangers do form a better impression of those who proffer their hand in greeting."

And I found this list about what a 'good' handshake is supposed to be. Other lists include mostly the same points: no sweaty hands, a firm grip, a smile, make eye contact, mind the duration.

For me personally, I noticed that my handshakes have improved over time, as a result of my social skills improving. Making physical/eye contact and timing is easier for me, now that my social skills are better developed. For me, a good handshake thus is the first impression of someone's social skills. Not the only one, but almost always definitely the first.

So, a good handshake is all about a good first impression. And although first impressions are not always right, making a good first impression certainly helps!

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    As someone who has conducted more than a few interviews, I'll add that having a good handshake is not nearly as important as not having a bad handshake. – Easy Tiger Aug 22 '17 at 15:24
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    I think the list needs to be extended by "Don't yank at peoples' arms." ;-) – AllTheKingsHorses Aug 23 '17 at 7:52
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Body language is an important factor in inter-person communication. How you behave will be interpreted by the other, whether or not you intend to. The other person will react based on his interpretation of your body language (no matter what you actually intended to say).

Assume those extreme cases of someone shaking your hand:

The other person barely touches your hand and let's go before you even have the chance to shake.

Interpretation: that person is not interested in you and considers the time spent with you a waste.

The other person firmly grabs your hand and shakes it heavily for 20 seconds.

Interpretation: that person is over enthusiastic to meet you and will probably do everything you say.

You want to make an impression during a job interview that makes you appear as a professional person interested in the job, but not too enthusiastic, so the interviewer does not take your acceptance of the job as granted.

Translating that impression into a handshake would be a short, well-hearted shake, including a professional smile with eye contact. Where 'short' means: long enough to appear interested, but short enough to not give an over-enthusiastic impression. The firmness should be strong enough so that the other considers your application solid, but - again - weak enough to emphasize that nothing is yet set in stone.

Btw. the phrase "A firm handshake you have there" is usually used when the other person found it too strong, and you either caused pain or appeared too dominant. It is a hint to be slightly more gentle. This is however only valid in a general context, a strong military man might consider painfully squeezing the bones with just the right force, while a weak/ill person might consider even a very gentle handshake as too much.

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    Those sorts of interpretations are only slightly more reliable than astrology – WGroleau Aug 22 '17 at 15:30
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    As emphasized above: the interpretation happens on the receiver side, and depending on cultural associations and things like the current mood of that person, any action can be interpreted completely different from what was intended. You can however make studies to see what the common interpretation is, and take that as the concept of "normal". – TwoThe Aug 28 '17 at 11:23
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I wanted to address this from a more anthropological perspective for people who just don't get handshakes or greetings at all.

Greetings among people around the world, whatever they may be, are generally for the following reasons:

  1. To show you're aware of and willing to comply with social cues:

    An improper handshake signals either a lack of empathy or intelligence, two traits that are incredibly important for business and personal dealings

  2. To exchange chemical signals. After all, we're still mammals.

    The researchers secretly filmed subjects to see how frequently they touched their own faces, and if that number changed significantly after shaking someone's hand. When people received a handshake from someone of the same gender, face-touching with the right hand increased by more than 100 percent.

  3. To show you don't have a weapon, and are non-hostile

    By touching hands together, [the individuals shaking hands] demonstrate that they have no weapons – no need to fear each other

    [ ... ]

    Negative emotions associated with a bad handshake stay with us for so long because it is stored in that part of the brain (amygdala/hippocampus) that helps us to assess for danger

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I came upon this question only today, but should like to offer this interpretation based on my experience:

A 'good' handshake is one that is so generic or neutral as to be unremarkable. This will differ from region to region and culture to culture. The opposite of a 'good' handshake is not a 'bad' handshake but an 'odd' handshake which can make the recipient uneasy at a primal level and make them mistrust that individual.

If exerting a reasonable amount of pressure while shaking hands is normal in your culture, then your coach while encouraging you to develop a 'good firm handshake' was probably warning you against developing a weak or limp handshake. Because 'good, firm' being the norm, 'weak/limp' might well seem odd and give a bad impression.

Here in India men shake hands with men but not usually with women. Of course women shake hands with women. Shaking hands is common but not at all mandatory: there are many non-touch forms of greeting here and younger or low-status men are not expected to initiate a handshake with older or high-status individuals. This is the cultural norm. Rejecting a socially acceptable handshake also leaves a bad impression.

I dislike shaking hands in general, but especially dislike damp hands, fleshy palms, limp handshakes and lingering handshakes. I haven't received bone-crushingly hard handshakes since my college days, when a few classmates did try to exert more pressure in 'play dominance.' That tells me adult men here are judicious with the pressure they apply. No need to go at it too hard. Whereas a firm and quick handshake is 'good' in my opinion.

I say this only to emphasise that every person reacts differently to somebody's handshake. However, a 'good' handshake is important because shaking hands leads to the formation of a strong first impression or strong repeat impressions, and you want it to be a 'good' impression. Note that these impressions are hardly conclusive: many fraudulent persons have good firm handshakes and one of the nicest, honest and most helpful men I know actually has a limp handshake.

Again, as other answers here have already conveyed, people tend to interpret handshakes not in isolation, but in the overall context of personality, behavior, body language and the cultural situation (for example a handshake with a bereaved friend can be exceptionally long -- literally holding hands for minutes -- because human beings express sympathy and compassion through touch gestures.)

Post scriptum: if your handshake is actually very strong then "a firm handshake you have there" is possibly an example of classic British understatement, but if the same comment were addressed to somebody with a limp handshake, it would be an example of sarcasm/irony.

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From my personal experience it isn't, but that does not mean that there aren't studies that say otherwise or that's how it works out in most scenarios.

The strongest handshake I have received in my life came out quite short. The man that shook my hand said the following:

Real men shake their hands strongly.

I took that as that my handshake was not quite strong enough to consider myself a man. Few moments later I called my mother, told her that man hurt me and I started crying...

The point I want to come across is strong handshakes don't mean anything when people talk to you like that.

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  • "The man that shook my hand said the following: Real men shake their hands strongly. (...) The point I want to come across is strong handshakes don't mean anything when people talk to you like that." __ too right @user7361! People who call themself 'real men' will not hesitate to hurt (will even actively hurt) other men, women, children, animals, nations and the environment. Better to have a weak handshake than an aggressive mind, I says! So I appreciate and upvote. Please post more such insightful answers here. – English Student Oct 18 '17 at 15:02
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  • A handshake conveys information about attitude. It can give early warning about whether the other person feels discomfort, avoidance, anger, disgust, or enthusiasm. Some people can fake their body-language, but many people forget or don't bother.

  • Unlike other types of body-language, handshakes are repeated for each pair of people, so it can uncover a person's attitudes toward particular individuals, which wouldn't be apparent from the person's overall body-language toward the group.

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