How and Why to Do a Proper Handshake

Interacting with other humans is hard.  As a culture, we have a terrible time determining if someone is telling the truth or lying.  The handshake originated as a way to determine that the other person doesn’t have a weapon they could use against you.  In veterinary medicine, we will often shake hands when meeting someone and, sometimes, when parting.  For better or worse, some evaluators will judge your handshake skills as an indicator of how genuine, honest, competent, or otherwise “good” you are. 

The pandemic briefly interrupted normal handshake culture, but I have observed in the past few months that people have returned to pre-pandemic handshake rituals. So, learning how to do a proper handshake may help your career.

The most common problem I experience with a handshake is a very soft or limp-wristed handshake.  So the first step is to have a firm- but not crushing- handshake.  This is true regardless of your gender.  Grasp their hand and exert a fair amount of pressure, but don’t SQUEEZE.

Look the person in the eye while you shake their hand.  Again, the handshake is intended to establish trust.  In our culture, we believe that direct eye contact establishes a greater degree of trust.  Practice this repeatedly with friends and family. Shake hand, look in eye.

As you are probably aware, we have a decent number of “cowboys” in veterinary medicine.  These are generally men who typically practice large animal medicine who believe in CRUSHING your hand during a handshake.  You could try to meet force with force, but I don’t recommend it.  I imagine these guys go home to use their eagle claw strengthening devices. You probably can’t out-crushing-handshake them.

Instead, there’s a simple solution to this.  When you identify one of these individuals (they’re usually easy to spot on visual assessment), when you shake their hand, extend your index and middle finger.  It may decrease my grip strength 10-20%, but the extended fingers prevent your hand from being crushed while also transmitting a decent grip from their point of view. I learned this from a self-defense class and it is remarkably effective.

I think you should cultivate a good handshake because some people will use it to gauge your integrity and competence.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s how the world works.  Practicing and delivering a good handshake may mean the difference between getting your next position and not.  It’s not hard to do, so go ahead and get cracking on making a good first impression.  Decent grip strength, look them in the eye.

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