Ever since I was a child, I’ve been aware of the handshake. As a boy, then a youngster and later I always knew that I had to shake my (male) friends’ hands firmly, perhaps even very firmly. My friends and I knew those ‘strange’ boys and men whose handshake offered a hand with no or very little tension. Perhaps to a lesser extent but also my female friends looked at such boys with disapproval. But, to be honest, apart from my tacit and unreflected upon knowledge, I hardly ever really thought about it.It changed quite a few years ago when I shook hands with a man who almost crushed mine. My hand was in a vice; my (firm) handshake was no match for this man’s grip and I was in some discomfort, even if very briefly. Of course, I don’t think the man tried to hurt me. He probably perceived me as someone whose body could take it, at the same time perhaps also symbolically winning the masculinity contest. He was the stronger, larger man, and with a much firmer handshake, and even though I was not playing, my doctorate was hardly a match. Ever since then such crushing handshakes happened to me a few times, once, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, from a Polish professor (incidentally, a fellow linguist).
But as I was trying not to wince (I wasn’t playing, but I wasn’t prepared to sound retreat, either), I asked myself the question of the limits of firmness. Ever since then, I have been a keen(-ish) handshake-watcher, and although I can very easily get distracted, over the years I have collected quite a number of interesting handshakes. I was reminded of this a few days ago as I was saying goodbye to a colleague at a conference. He squeezed my hand much harder than I expected. It was nowhere near as strong as the handshake of my life, still it was very strong.
And so, long overdue, I decided to write about my handshake reflections. I must stress, however, that what I am about to write is based solely on my subjective findings, I have never done any research. And so my observations, sometimes more, sometimes less frequent do not aspire to produce valid knowledge, if they do, I am lucky.
So, let me start with varying strengths of handshakes. In Poland the handshake is ‘always’ to be very firm, while in England it ‘always’ is (considerably) weaker, sometimes unacceptably so for a Pole like me. Whenever I move between the two countries, I need to adjust the firmness. Indeed, this is how I see the strength of the farewell handshake a few days ago – the colleague was Czech. And so, I started looking for research on strength of the handshake. There is some (please see below), but a (admittedly not very thorough) search of Google Scholar turned up no research measuring the force of the handshake (within or across societies and cultures), limiting the findings to perceptions of strength, which, in my view, is drastically less interesting. I do accept, however, that such a study would be very difficult to carry out, especially if it were to go out of a lab!
Still, the Telegraph tells us about research reporting that limp handshakes make you more likely to die young, less likely to find a sexual partner, less likely to be well-educated, less likely to succeed in job interviews. Reading the article, I was wondering why ‘42’ was the answer not ‘the handshake’, and that instead of pedometers, and other health gizmos, we really need just the one: HSmeter! Remember, you read it here first!
But my favourite topic of investigation is gender of the handshake. It started with observations of my handshakes in encounters with women. Over the years, I have observed an increase in the strength of handshakes from women, and that, interestingly, across (“European”) cultures. Polish, British, Canadian, Australian, Norwegian (to name the few I shook hands with just recently) shook my hand more firmly.
Before I continue, though, I need to make one reservation. As Debbie Cameron warns on her blog (it is one of the best (popular) writing on language/discourse), women are not a homogeneous group (the same applies to men, of course, as the classic book by R.W.Connell, Masculinities, tells us). And it may well be that what I have observed is also related to class, age, sexuality, level of education, kind of job; basically, femininity might, to borrow Stuart Hall’s term, articulate with a host of other identity resources (I have not found a good link explaining articulation in this sense).
So, having observed the growing handshake strength, I asked a few female friends about it and they confirmed that they now frequently shake men’s hands more firmly than men theirs. But the answers as to why this happens were even more interesting. One of the women I spoke to suggested that the firmer handshake is indicative of a non-gendered subject position she takes. In other words, the firmer the handshake, the less of a woman she is. She becomes a colleague, teacher, official, acquaintance etc.. The firm handshake allows her to challenge the stereotype of the delicate female and moves her away from a gender-anchored interaction. All sorts of stereotypes of delicateness, lack of physical strength and probably others would support such an explanation. The increase of handshake strength might indeed result in loss of inhabited and perceived femininity. Unfortunately, I have no observations on what happens in woman-woman encounters.
That conclusion led me to one more illumination. Even though on different scales, I think also in man-man (reservations as to heterogeneity of masculinity apply) interactions there is a spectrum of strengths. Except it is reversed. I think the correlation is that the weaker the handshake, the less masculinity it projects. And so, as you shake hands in more formal situations, the handshake tends to be weaker, there is less movement (less shaking), and that leads to weaker gendering of subject positions. This is indeed why I interpreted the crushing handshake was a display of (dominant) masculinity.
Now, my (admittedly not extremely thorough) searches yielded no research at all on gendering of the handshake. To be sure, there is much on personality, interpersonal relationships in business, let alone on etiquette. But there is nothing on how men and women shake hands and what these handshakes mean. And at the moment I must be content with my speculations based on years on very informal ethnography (and I do make it sound more than it is). But I do hope someone will do a handshake-strengthometer study!