Donald Trump’s hands are certainly mesmerizing. They are unpredictable when faced with another human, and those offering hands towards his never know quite what gentle grasp or part-wrestling hold they will be pulled into.
But the attention given to his pawing, grabbing, and attempted business-like shaking of hands is overplayed.
Was it really the hilarious faux-pas his detractors claimed when Poland’s First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda walked past Trump’s outstretched hand in favor of Melania Trump’s hand, or simply—more likely--simply the First Lady exercising the politesse?
And sure he strong-armed French President Emmanuel Macron a few months back, but he had a point to make. It seemed more a meeting of equals with Vladimir Putin when palm met palm for the first time at the G20 Summit, and then at their official sitdown later Putin’s hand rested on top of Trump’s. A soft Russian power play.
Trump’s handshakes may look like a circus of odd, but a lot of people are pretty terrible at shaking hands, or knowing how to greet one another--and men with other men in particular. Men, particularly heterosexual ones, are wary of how to touch one another, and how it will be perceived.
How might the hand-shake look: too hard, too soft, too intimate, too limp? How long should it go on for? Who should take the initiative, and when hands are firmly gripped, control? Just typing that makes clear that shaking hands anxiety and sex anxiety are not so different.
A brisk shaking of the hands should be both a welcome and introduction, and it can also be the perfect seal to the end of a business conversation. A good, mutually respectful handshake should speak of trust and maybe a continuing relationship. But complicating all of this are the eddying cross-currents of male heterosexuality and the trepidation around skin meeting skin.
Patti Wood, a body language expert who has spent several years studying handshakes and greeting behavior and who is the author of Snap: Making The Most of first Impressions, Body Language & Charisma, told the Daily Beast that Trump typically uses his handshakes with others “to show his power and alpha status, to show that he’s the one in control.”
We should remember that the germaphobe Trump is likely not relishing every time he has to shake a hand. He once called the practice “barbaric.” As he said in 1999: “I mean they have medical reports all the time. Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch this. You catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don’t catch?”
Wood said that for years Trump wouldn’t proffer his hand. That had to change when he entered politics, and his handshake with Putin this week was one of the most equitable he had executed.
“Normally he likes to have his hand on top,” said Wood of the men’s first, impromptu meeting. “But with this one, it’s different. He seems to be the one initiating it. Both men’s thumbs are locked. It’s a normal handshake saying ‘We are equals.’”
Sometimes, said Wood, Trump grabs the other person’s arm above the elbow. “That’s called a politician’s handshake,” said Wood. “It says, ‘I surround you, control you.’ With Putin he comes slightly underneath with his left hand. That shows support. He pats him three times in quick succession. That’s a symbol of certainty and truth. Then he pats him on the back. It says, ‘I mean it.’”
Wood is well aware of the handshake minefield: the handshakes that become uncomfortable bro-hugs; the handshake that is declined; even the insecurity around when to hold out one’s hand.
With women, Wood said, men don’t know if they should initiate a handshake. If they don’t women feel disrespected. Wood tells both men and women to initiate: just someone do it, she says. “Contact is key.”
If someone shakes hands with you limply, disrespectfully not meeting your own firm grip, suggest doing the handshake again.
“Don’t take it personally,” Wood said of others’ handshake-dissing. “It’s really a message about them and what they feel about their power and maintaining their separateness and edge. I typically say initiate the handshake from two to four feet away. It makes the handshake difficult to deny. If they still decline an offered hand, they lose a little bit.”
If the handshake leads to sudden intimacy you weren’t expecting, Wood said, “it depends on the interaction and what you want,” but if it’s unwelcome turn your mouth away, and your body to the side. Physically withdraw, or signal your desired withdrawal, from whatever intimacy is being attempted.
Patti Wood’s guide to execute the perfect handshake.
Make eye contact early.
Offer a brief smile, perhaps a warm greeting. You want equity.
From two to four feet away, hold out your hand, put your fingers down, then when the hands meet spring the hand up inside the other palm. Lock hands at the thumb. It’s traditional to give three pumps, but now that might be less depending on today’s casual business environment.
You also want to shake hands at the end of the meeting. No matter what happened during the meeting, whatever the social situation, it gives you another link to that person, and leaves an opportunity open for future interactions. It also shows a little bit about your desire to reconnect with the person. If there was conflict during the meeting an end-handshake says, “That was game, that game is over, and now we get another chance next time.”