We keep getting handshakes wrong.
So while I wrote separately about the most important rules to keep in mind when you’re shaking hands, you’re only one half of the handshaking equation. By definition, there’s another person involved.
And to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, Hell is other handshakers. Especially bad handshakers.
Fotunately, we can categorize most of the world’s leading handshake missteps, and help you put together a reaction plan long before your hands meet. Here’s what to do when you’re on the receiving end of a bad handshake.
1. What to do when someone tries to crush your hand with a handshake.
We’ll address this obvious one first: the guy (it’s always a guy) who wants to crush your hand while shaking it in a pathetic attempt to express dominance.
By the way, this is never done by mistake, although the “hard handshaker” will sometimes profess that he’s just that strong and can’t control himself. That is always a lie, and you should remember that the person who says it cannot be trusted.
Anyway, you have three options:
- Do nothing. He’s the pathetic one; let him think his gesture means something.
- Crush back. You can do this if you think you can win, although keep in mind you’re sinking to their level. You can also grip the trangressor’s handshake hand with your free left hand to add some extra power. If that feels like cheating, just remember the other guy started it, so anything goes.
- Call him out verbally, preferably with a humor-infused put-down. For example, “Wow, what a handshake, you must spend hours alone in your bedroom working on it!”
I’m big on number 3, as it completely undermines the hard handshaker’s M.O. Almost regardless of what happens next, he’s lost the alpha advantage he sought.
2. What to do when your handshake/hug radar is not aligned.
It happens: you go to shake hands; the other person goes in for the friendly hug. Or you’re the hugger and they’re the handshaker. You have to go with what’s natural, but in general, if they want to hug, give ’em a little hug. The fact that you make the second effort to get the gesture right will mean something.
That said, big exception here: If there is any chance that going in for the hug will make either of you feel uncomfortable–especially if the words “sexual harassment” enter into your psyche in any way–stick with the handshake. It’s always better to be remembered as the awkwardly formal guy than to remind someone of a creepy distant uncle.
3. What to do when they pull back or make you stretch to meet them.
This is either another one of those handshake power games, or it’s a matter of obliviousness. Usually, a handshake isn’t worth the contortions. You can beg off, or joke about it–pantomiming like you’re actually shaking hands while pointing out that it would be logistically ridiculous to climb over four people and reach over to shake hands.
Sometimes however, you just have to stretch and reach and do it. I’m thinking of the first time I met my girlfriend’s father, for example.
4. What to do when the handshake lasts too long.
Pumping is optional in handshakes, but if you do, there’s a firm three pump limit. Anything past that, and you’d better be gripping hands while holding a giant oversized check and posing for a camera. If the other person doesn’t stop shaking hands after three up-and-down motions–five at the absolute tops–it’s up to you to gently release your grip and pull back.
5. What to do when they shake hands limply.
Nothing really to be done here. Maybe they just don’t have a firm grip; maybe there’s a reason you know nothing about. Just reciprocate with a politely firm grip of your own and get out quickly.
6. What to do when they shake hands while ignoring you.
This is a tough one. To describe the situation further, I’m thinking of the times when someone starts to shake your hand, but in mid-shake turns his or her attention to someone else without letting go. It’s either a show of dominance, or a sign of a person who is at best case distracted, or at worse case, an egotist.
The good news here is that you hold all the cards. If this is a person you really want to talk with, you literally have them by the hand; they cannot walk away without pulling back.
If it’s someone you aren’t willing to play this game with, just let go as if the handshake never happened. Think of it as a bad relationship that took only a few seconds, and move on with your life.
7. What to do when they have wet or dirty hands.
You can try to beg off–maybe by saying something like, “Sorry for not shaking hands; my hands are wet.” Even if your hands are as dry as a James Bond martini, the other person can’t really call you out on this little white lie without bringing attention to the state of his or her hands.
Or, you can just shake hands anyway, and wash your hands or use a little hand sanitizer afterward. I know a guy who once went for a job interview, and used the men’s room while waiting, where he saw another guy use the facilities but not wash his hands. Minutes later, he met the person who’d be interviewing him: You guessed it: “Mr. Didn’t Wash His Hands.”
What are you going to do in that situation? If you want the job, I guess you shake hands.
Like our guide to how to shake hands like a human being, we can’t cover every situation here. But honestly, handling the overly-hard handshakers alone makes this worth it. Bottom line: Lead by example, it’s not that hard. Just shake hands like a regular human being.