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Kennedy: What does handshake say about a woman?

Kennedy: What does handshake say about a woman?

Long-running guide on etiquette sheds some light
Kennedy: What does handshake say about a woman?
Photographer: Shutterstock

Years ago, when our daughters were young, Husband made a game of teaching them how to shake hands.

He’d engage them in a shake, a “How do you do?” and then assess their performance. Of course, as a game, they liked to take it to extremes, becoming giddy in offering a limp, dead-fish handshake.

I think of that game whenever I’m on the receiving end of a less-than-satisfactory handshake: the health care CEO who shook my hand as if it were delicate porcelain; the female job candidate who seemed intent on breaking a few bones; the college president whose palm was so dry I wanted to pass her some hand cream.

The long-running guide on etiquette, now periodically updated by the descendants of manners maven Emily Post, says the handshake dates at least to ancient Egypt and Babylon. The gesture, an open right hand proffered in greeting, is believed to have been used by men to show they carried no weapon.

“Today, a handshake is a gesture of friendship and good faith, as when people seal a deal by shaking hands,” says the 19th and latest edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette.”

In 1920s America, when Emily Post first wrote her rules on shaking hands, women were “ladies” and they rarely shook hands when introduced to men; it was acceptable if they did with other ladies, though.

Nowadays, women and men alike shake hands, and it’s proper for either to offer their hand first.

In fact, a study from the University of Alabama, published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggested that a firm handshake “may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women that does not have the costs associated with other less subtle forms of assertive self-promotion.”

The study wanted to see whether it could demonstrate empirically the widely held belief that a person’s handshake reflects his or her personality and influences first impressions about them.

It concluded that a person’s handshake “is related to some aspects of his or her personality,” with a firm handshake found in a person who is more extraverted and open to experience.

That was especially true for women, according to the study, and those women made a more favorable impression than women who were less open and had a less firm handshake.

“Our results provide one instance in which women who exhibit a behavior — a firm handshake — that is more common for men and that is related to confidence and assertiveness are evaluated more positively than are women who exhibit a more typical feminine handshake,” the study said.

In other words, a firm handshake can engender more positive feelings about a woman’s abilities than her promoting herself as a man would, which usually is perceived negatively.

Who knew that was the advantage Husband was imparting to our daughters years ago.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

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