NONVERBAL Communication

Understanding and reading the business handshake

From our earliest years, we’ve learned a good handshake is firm, and that we should avoid sweaty or soft handshakes. We assume that a person who firmly shakes our hand is agreeable, without any more information!

Analyzing human behaviour through non-verbal communication reveals more information. It allows us to understand our interlocutor, whether he likes us or not, and even to assess the type of relationship he entertains with us.

We can analyze over 20 observations in a handshake. Here are the 6 most important:

I AM OPEN TO YOU OR I AM imposing myself on YOU

An extended hand facing a person could be perfectly vertical, but this is rarely the case. The palm of the hand will tend to point downward or upward. The message is not the same.

Supination — Palm looking up h1

A handshake looking upwards translates openness. In negotiation, this is a more desirable handshake than a handshake looking down.

Pronation — Palm looking down

Pronation in a handshake reflects domination, and by extension, a form of control. Without being fully aware, a person that extends a hand with palm looking down shows a form of condescendence.


Let’s stick to business

An interesting rule: the straighter the right arm, the more professional the ratio.

Straight arm = professional rapport

Arm at 90 degrees = personal rapport

We do not engage anyone, in any fashion. A straight-arm handshake is normal for a first meeting and is common for professional first meetings. As more meetings ensue, the arm can move towards a 90-degree angle, reducing the distance between two people.


MOVING ON – I want to leave

During the contact, the caller’s feet are not equal. His left foot has never advanced. The person presents only a part of him/herself: his/her right. The other side – the left – has already left!

“C’mon, let’s move on!” This handshake is very common. We often use it when we need to acknowledge several people in a short time – weddings, funerals, etc. If this is not the case when the other person uses this handshake, you’ll know that he/she wants to leave.


I am not entirely open OR I am uncomfortable

The hand is the visible part of the brain. Comfortable people do not hide their hands. This rule also applies in a handshake. In a handshake, when the left hand disappears into the back (or occasionally in the pocket) of the person you are greeting, that person is probably uncomfortable.

The last two gestures form a strong pair: a fleeing foot (the left) + a hidden hand (still the left).


I greatly appreciate you

A 2-hand handshake is half-conscious and often observed in middle-aged people. People who use this handshake engage fully and offer the best of them.

On the other hand, the person who receives it may not perceive it in the same way. Perhaps the “recipient” does not appreciate the aspect of “supplication”. Both hands seem to beg the other hand, much like a prayer.

We usually appreciate this handshake from an older person – think of a person giving a handshake with both hands to his/her pharmacist.



Few people know that a more vigilant person will tend to blink less – for fear of being vulnerable by missing something while their eyes were closed. Next time you observe a seduction, notice how your eyes close slowly!

Apply this data on a handshake – If a person who likes you blinks their eyes before you leave, he/she trusts you and “takes a mental picture of you.” Unconsciously, the most vigilant people will tend to avoid blinking to better protect him/herself.


Author: Christian Martineau, MBA

Immediately after obtaining an Executive MBA from the University of Sherbrooke, Mr. Martineau undertook a 3-year training in nonverbal communication (Synergologie)

As a speaker and trainer in nonverbal communication, Mr. Martineau can explain over 3,000 unconscious gestures.

For several years, Mr. Martineau worked as a trainer with companies, associations and government agencies like the Canadian Armed Forces. He trains tax fraud investigators for the Government of Canada. Lately, he was invited by TED.