Gentleman Scholar

How Does a Gentleman Shake Hands With a Lady?

Somewhere between the Hulk and a dead fish.

Troy Patterson’s new photo

Photo by Christopher Bonanos

Dear Gentleman Scholar —
Recently, I nearly reduced a woman to tears when she gently proffered her hand to me at a work conference and I vigorously squeezed it and yanked her around like the Incredible Hulk shaking hands with Raggedy Ann. There was much metacarpal cracking and muted whimpering. Having (I thought) learned my lesson, later at the same event when another women extended her hand, I very gently held hers and then released. There were no injuries this time, but she glared at me as if I had just handed her a dead fish. How does a gentleman shake hands with a lady? Am I supposed to shake it, caress it, kiss it, just hold it for a moment? What gives?

Finishing School Dropout

Thank you for the Q, FSD.

The Gentleman Scholar knows that a gentleman always treats a woman gently. He breaks this rule only at her encouragement, like if she’s begging you to pull her hair or something—a rather more clear-cut form of physical communication than that which concerns us today. Given the context of the second handshake described above, I will assume that the letter writer is not a chronic smasher of phalanges. Perhaps he punished the paw of a person suffering undiagnosed arthritis? Whatever the case, he got thrown off his game, meekly holding out a limp mitt like an unwelcome mat—the dreaded dead fish.

Shake it off, man. Will it comfort you to know that you’re not alone? Flipping through books on professional etiquette, we discover tales of men who’ve worked in sales for 20 years without ever feeling at ease shaking hands with the opposite sex. The business is tricky, all the more so because, where many a gentleman shakes hands with male friends at every meeting, one tends not to shake hands with established female friends at all, instead greeting and parting and sharing congratulations with hugs, air kisses, crisp waves, minor bows, fond salutes, raucous fist bumps. … Basic intimate contact is such a marvelously complex issue that it makes the Gentleman Scholar want to get all scholarly and apprehend its slippery meanings.

We open Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life—a seminal study of face-to-face interaction—and light up at its analysis of social life as theater: “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.” We close Goffman’s book concluding that the handshake, like any other reciprocal nonverbal greeting, represents an act of improvised choreography. It is, to borrow the terminology of the dance world, a spontaneous physical dialogue based on bodily contact. Translating the most elementary meaning of the opening handshake from body language into English, Cliff Goddard’s Semantic Analysis arrives at a kind of Radiohead-robot free verse:

” ‘I think something good about you now
I do this because I want you to know it
at the same time, I want you to know that I think like this:
“it is good if I can do some things with you”
I feel something good because of this’ “

In 2000 a research team at the University of Alabama published a fascinating psychology paper titled “Handshaking, Gender, Personality, and First Impressions.” Its lab research involved the rating of handshakes according to familiar criteria—completeness of grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigor, texture, and eye contact. The raters spent a month practicing the moment of a neutral all-American handshake, the researchers’ description of which serves as a very fine verbal diagram:

The hand was extended straight out from the waist with the palm facing to the left and the thumb raised at a 45-degree angle. On contact with an individual’s hand, the handshakers closed their hand around the other’s hand, but waited for the other to initiate the strength of the grip and the upward and downward shaking. In addition, the raters were instructed to release their grip only when the participant began to relax his or her grip or otherwise showed signs of wishing to terminate the handshake.

Now, when you’re shaking hands with another able-bodied adult male, you will likely want to be more assertive than that. But those are the basics of the thing—mano a mano compression, mutual exploration, manual self-expression.

This is a partner dance with rules of lead and follow, some determined by business etiquette (the person of higher status initiates the shake), some by old-fashioned social custom (in social settings, the gentleman waits for the lady to initiate the shake, but the lady does not refuse a forgetful gentleman’s impatient initiation). Once the contact has begun, most of the rules are unspoken and unconscious. A moment’s reflection should lead a guy to realize that his grip is equipped with a self-regulating pressure gauge: Shaking hands with a woman, he, like the lab hand-shakers, allows his partner to determine the force of the shake and responds in kind.

And remember: Eye contact is the most important part of any handshake, intergender or otherwise, for this ceremonial access ritual is on some level always a form of a seduction. The best handshake the Gentleman Scholar has ever had extended from the forearm of William Jefferson Clinton, whose mastery of the techniques of projecting empathy involves a handshake that invites you to admire yourself in a gaze that says he’s reflecting your depths and that this contact completes a circuit. So, FSD, aim for something like that.