We all have our prejudices when reading personality into other people’s handshake style – especially at the knuckle-crunching and limp extremes. In a new study, rather than correlating different handshake styles with the assumptions they provoke, Frank Bernieri and Kristen Petty have tested what accurate personality information, if any, is conveyed by handshakes.
The researchers screened the personality of 300 students and selected ten with contrasting personality profiles (five men and five women). These ten folk became the targets who would introduce themselves and either shake hands, or not, with over a hundred student participants (male targets introduced themselves to male participants and female targets met female participants). The participants’ task after these five-second introductions was to compare the targets and list them in rank order for each of the Big Five personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness. The key question was whether participants who shook hands with the targets would be more accurate for any of the personality traits than the participants who didn’t get to shake hands with the targets.
The format of the introductions was always the same and designed to imitate a job interview situation. Five targets, either all men or all women, walked one at a time into a room in which a participant was seated at a desk, they said their name to the participant (they used a stage name), shook hands or not (for half the participants they did so), and then they went and sat in a nearby chair until the session was over. All targets were instructed to make eye contact when they introduced themselves. The participants only began rating the targets after they’d met all five. Targets and participants had never met before.
Overall, the participants’ assessment of the targets’ personalities was generally poor except for the extraversion ratings. This is unsurprising given the cursory nature of the introductions. But here’s the take-home finding. For male participants only, those who got to shake the targets’ hands were substantially more accurate when rating the targets’ conscientiousness, a trait that, among other things, is known to be an effective predictor of success at work. Handshaking made no difference to the accuracy of ratings for any of the other personality traits.
Why this one specific insight gleaned from handshaking? Bernieri and Petty’s explanation is that conscientiousness is a trait that reflects how successfully a person can learn any complex behaviour, be that a musical instrument or a handshake. “The ubiquitous handshake may not be as ritualized or as precise as the Japanese tea ceremony,” they said, “but it certainly requires some knowledge of the prevailing social norms and some interpersonal coordination.” In other words, the researchers think that conscientious men are more adept handshakers and this was detected by the participants. For cultural reasons, the researchers think that handshakes don’t play as big a role in women’s lives and so the same result wasn’t found for them. However, they speculated that the same conscientiousness/handshake link might be found with business women who shake hands regularly as part of their professional culture.
“So, are handshakes a window into one’s soul?” the researchers asked. “They certainly play a part in generating a first impression, but the data reported here suggest that, with the possible exception of conscientiousness, handshakes should not be considered a necessary diagnostic tool in the evaluation of others. They may, however, predict whether someone will show up for their next appointment with you on time.”
If all this talk is causing you concern about your own technique, here’s some advice from Emily Post’s Etiquette; ‘The Blue book of social usage’, published in 1940:
“The proper handshake is made briefly: but there should be a feeling of strength and warmth to the clasp, and as in bowing, one should at the same time look into the countenance of the person whose hand one takes.”
Bernieri, F., and Petty, K. (2011). The influence of handshakes on first impression accuracy. Social Influence, 6 (2), 78-87 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2011.566706