Get a grip! Master the meaningful handshake
Few of us rehearse our handshakes, but when the Queen and Martin McGuinness pressed palms last week – on what has become known as Handshake Wednesday – nothing could be left to chance.
This historic gesture was first practised behind closed doors and then enacted in front of the world as a symbol of how far the Northern Irish peace process has come. After working along a line-up including Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson, the Queen clasped the ex-IRA commander-turned-Deputy First Minister’s hand longer than any other delegate, perhaps relishing the historical importance; perhaps posing for the cameras.
Whatever the motivation for this prolonged gesture of friendship, the handshake became world news. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that when his fellow Republican shook hands with the Queen, he was “symbolically shaking hands with the hundreds of thousands of unionists”, while The Irish Times splashed with the headline: ‘Republicans move from clenched fist to open handshake’.
Even Countess Mountbatten, whose son, father and mother-in-law died as a result of an IRA bomb in 1979, was lifted by the handshake: “I think it’s wonderful. I’m hugely grateful that we have come to a point where we can behave responsibly and positively.”
Some wags on Twitter suggested an Obama-style fist bump might have been more appropriate for the modernising pair, while Scottish comic Limmy wrote: “Idea for a comedy/family film, called Shake Up. Martin McGuinness and the Queen switch personalities via their handshake.”
Seeing as the Queen’s job involves little more than shaking hands and waving at people, you would expect her to be pretty good at pressing the flesh. Not so, claims Judi James, a celebrity psychologist who gives expert opinion on body language for television shows like Big Brother.
“The handshake would have been considered quite frosty if she was an ordinary person, but this was quite warm for the royals,” she says. “Normally she puts out a gloved hand and just extends her fingers. This time it was done deliberately, with intense eye contact and friendly-looking smiles. It extended further than the normal lightweight, going-through-the-motions handshakes.
“I spend a lot of time working with business people who often tell me they have been on the receiving end of a ghastly handshake. In Britain, we are very bad at the handshake because we’re just too diffident and don’t realise how important it is. Normally, it marks a first meeting, which, in animal terms, is when two creatures decide whether to kill each other or not.”
James pooh-poohs the idea that handshakes are exclusively descended from the practice of showing an empty sword hand to prove a person has no aggressive intent. Instead she looks to apes for a pre-human example of similar behaviour. When one ape meets a stronger one, she claims, the weaker holds out an entire paw, in a submissive ritual designed to placate the aggressor.
But when humans meet and press palms nowadays, they aren’t generally begging for mercy or proving they aren’t carrying a blade, but are trying to forge a relationship. Shaking hands with someone like David Miliband, Ray Winstone or Huw Edwards, high-profile or charismatic individuals, they clasp your hand, power coursing through their fingers like a lightning rod. A sweaty, limp, half-hearted handshake just wouldn’t have the same effect.
For those looking to capture some of that firm-fisted magic, James has this advice: “Firstly, the host should put their hand out before the guest. Secondly, you should both make it a clear gesture, rather than coming up and shoving a hand out. You need to prepare by, for instance, putting bags in the left hand and making sure your palms aren’t sweaty. Don’t wipe them on your trousers, because that’s not much more pleasant. Press your right palm to their right palm and then shake up and down three times. You may add an extra pat or squeeze to a friend, but that’s not appropriate for anyone else in the UK.”
Perhaps the next time you go to grab someone’s hand, you should take inspiration from McGuinness and the Queen: think before you shake.