“Not bad,” my new colleague declared, having taken it upon herself to assess my handshake. She conducted this test on everyone she met for the first time, administering it as many times as it took for her poor subjects to pass. Luckily, I only had to shake her hand once.
I remembered this assessment as I read Jenny Colgan’s Little Beach Street Bakery, a light romance in which a 30-something bread-maker moves to an isolated village where no one would dare to bake (you’ll have to read the novel to find out why). Polly’s introduction to this insular English town comes from a realtor, Lance Hardington, who follows his “ferociously strong handshake” with a euphemistic description of the area as “unspoiled” and “up-and-coming.”
Polly decides to give the town a chance, and her willingness to set aside her first impressions of it ultimately pays off. As she learns, there’s some truth to the old cliché that first impressions are not always what they seem.
However, the emphasis western culture places on the importance of a firm handshake suggests otherwise. We’re taught that a strong handshake, though maybe not quite as fierce as Lance Hardington’s grip, is associated with positive personality traits that make a good first impression, one that will result in landing a job or achieving some other academic or professional milestone. We believe it signifies self-assurance, dominance, and friendliness, while a weak handshake indicates shyness, introversion, and neuroticism.
In addition, the odors exchanged when two palms meet also convey information. Research published earlier this year showed that people subconsciously bring their hands to their noses after shaking hands, presumably to benefit from the chemosignals carried in sweat (which, according to the linked article, indicate information such as a person’s age, gender, and emotional state).
That’s disgusting to think about, isn’t it? As a germophobe, I don’t want to shake hands with anyone. Ever. When I can’t avoid it, I fixate on the foreign germs and sweat on my skin until I can get myself to the nearest sink. The person who makes no effort to shake my hand leaves a better first impression on me than the guy who sniffs his hand after crushing mine.