Understanding the handshake to design for better UX.
The handshake goes back thousands of years. Like most things that originated well before our time, there are several theories regarding it’s original meaning. All theories touch on similar themes, however.
It was said that people used to extend their empty hand to show they were unarmed, and proceed to shake hands to ensure no weapons were hidden up a sleeve.
A handshake was a symbol of good faith or a promise between two parties. In some of the oldest epic poems, a handshake represents a pledge and symbol of trust.
A brief history of my experience with handshakes
My dad was the first one to teach me about greeting people with a handshake. I specifically remember his instructions at every family gathering. “Saluda a la gente, mijo,” (“Say hi to everyone, son”) he would say to me when we arrived. As we got ready to leave, he would call me out every time, “despidete de la gente, mijo” (“say goodbye to everyone, son”). I would then carry my little-boy self around the room shaking every adult’s hand. Ghosting or the Irish goodbye is unheard of in Mexican culture.
He also taught me the importance of a good, firm handshake. What is a good, firm handshake? Simply put, when you’re not trying to hurt the other person or give them the dreaded “dead fish” hand. It’s not difficult. It baffles me how many people still fuck up a handshake.
I learned more about a proper handshake in high school. I went to a school where part of the curriculum involved working at a corporate internship once a week. The school had partnerships with several companies, organizations, hospitals, and law firms in the city that agreed to have students gain work experience in exchange for paying part of their tuition. Having a bunch of fourteen year-olds working in the corporate world in downtown Chicago, representing the school, you bet the school did their due-diligence and taught us a proper handshake and other professional etiquette.
Elements of a handshake
The handshake starts before the hand even moves. Part of a proper handshake is recognizing when a handshake is appropriate. Some may feel anxiety because they’re not sure if a handshake is warranted in certain situations. I won’t get into how to recognize this situation, so let’s just say that it is in fact a handshaking situation. In this case, just go for it with confidence. Swing your arm out with a nice extension and open palm so that there is no confusion about your intention.
There are a couple important steps to take before making contact. A quick and easy tip that will help the performance of your handshake dramatically is to use the muscles in your hand to squeeze your fingers together during the approach. This helps with firmness because you’re activating and tightening muscles in your hand. This also safeguards against accidentally locking fingers with the other party and resulting in an embarrassing handshake with one finger completely out of the action.
Another important tip is to focus on the curve formed by your thumb and index finger. You want to pull your thumb back to fully expose that curve. As you go to make contact, you want to make sure the apex of that curve kisses the other person’s same apex before clasping your fingers around the hand. Making sure that apex makes contact before engaging the clasp is critical to avoid an awkward handshake where one party is shaking the other’s fingers instead of their hand.
The other (important) parts of the handshake
If you did the handshake part correctly, you didn’t make someone feel uncomfortable or embarrass yourself. Congratulations? Sure, If you’re okay with simply not fucking up. But if you want to do better than average, you have to consider these additional elements.
We experience the world with all of our senses. It’s important to be mindful of this in our communication with others. Your eye contact, facial expression, voice, tone, and message are equally important as the handshake. I won’t go into this point too much other than to say, it should communicate genuineness. People recognize and feel genuineness when its presented to them. We should all feel something when meeting someone.
Robots meeting robots
Because handshake greetings are so common, their interaction almost gets lost because we go on auto-pilot. How many times have you met a few people in a group, gone through the motions, exchanged names, said your go-to greeting, and never register the persons name? That’s because we treat it as routine and we are not really listening; it can be a robotic experience.
We are human, after all
Sometimes, a few people manage to break you out of this auto-pilot and in turn make you listen. These people do this by doing or saying something different than the usual short list of greetings we all hear every single time. “Nice to meet you” is probably the most common. I hear this so often, I sometimes feel that the person saying it doesn’t really mean it, it’s just a courtesy to say. Sometimes a simple swap of an adjective is all it takes to break that monotony. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” The subtle change in a word here can be enough to gain someone’s attention. I’m most impressed with people who can achieve this through a gaze. It’s rare, but there are people that are so good at meeting others that they see you. You know what I mean if you’ve met one of them. It’s incredible.
Why is this important?
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ve made the connection to User Experience. First impressions are crucial in product design. Designers only have about 10 seconds, sometimes less, to make a positive impression on a user that will keep interacting with the product. Research shows that almost half of users determine how trustworthy a site is based on looks alone. Also, users give higher ratings to a site that is more aesthetically pleasing but difficult to use, than one that is less aesthetically pleasing but easier to use. Sticking to the handshake analogy, if it’s not in your personality to be outgoing and engaging, be intentional or even fake it, because that will increase chances of further interaction and engagement.
As designers, it is our responsibility to continually think of psychology and identify these parallels in order to design products that are most in tune with our human nature. Products should emulate human feedback. Feedback reassures users that they’re being heard. It puts them at ease and gives them the confidence for deeper interactions. See my article on holding hands for more on that topic.
A line from an old victorian etiquette guide hits at the main point of this article. It reads,
“a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense”
Don’t let your product do this…
Thanks for reading. Remember to put those hands together once or a few times if you liked this article. Cheers