When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. President Donald Trump on the steps of the White House earlier this week, the two men did what any two world leaders would do when greeting – they shook hands.
But this handshake was more than just a greeting, it was a statement and its message was heard around the world.
That message? We’re equals.
According to etiquette experts Julie Blais Comeau of Etiquette Julie and Lisa Orr of Orr Etiquette, a handshake can reveal a lot about a person, like their personality and business style.
Both Comeau and Orr spoke with Global News to break down that now famous handshake and reveal the secrets behind a good solid handshake.
Let’s talk about that handshake
While it may seem like a handshake between two world leaders – or two regular people for that matter – isn’t a big deal, it actually is important as it sets the tone for the type of relationship that’s in the process of being forged, Comeau and Orr say.
“[Trump and Trudeau’s handshakes] were really equivalent handshakes,” Orr says. “It was relatively open and had that balance. I think it [set the tone] for good Canadian and U.S. relations.”
With past visiting world leaders, Trump was known to engage in a “jerk and pull” motion and his handshakes would last longer than what is considered normal in a North American context. Sometimes he would even bring his other hand over and place it on top of the other’s hand and bring his opponent in closer to his personal space.
What this says for Comeau is that there is an uneasiness to Trump – at least that is what is perceived by the public.
“Nobody likes to be in a tug,” she says. “What we can see from the outside is certainly somebody that is bringing someone else into their world, their bubble and space … Proximity is an important element in power.”
Whether this was something that was rehearsed by Trump is unknown, but Comeau says it is something he does regularly because it’s been noticed by outsiders on several occasions, one of them being Trudeau.
For Orr, how Trudeau handled himself during that handshake showed that he was prepared, as well as adamant to show his dominance as a world leader himself.
“I was really impressed with how our prime minister handled that handshake,” Orr said. “I think the prime minister recognized that he would be encountering a potentially more aggressive handshake than you might see in other environments. What he did was come in with a firm handshake so that he was exerting the same amount of force so that it was balanced.”
And by bringing his other hand into the space to place it on Trump’s shoulder, Trudeau was showing confidence and telling Trump he sees him as his equal, Comeau says.
Comeau adds that his hand on Trump’s shoulder could also mean Trudeau was setting boundaries.
“It all depends on how the other person perceives it,” Comeau says. “Perception is reality.”
But did the handshake accomplish what it set out to do? Yes, says Orr.
“I think that handshake did set the tone for a positive ongoing Canadian-U.S. relationship,” Orr said. “Both players came open, made great eye contact, it was firm but there was no one player that was dominant. It’s a great kind of model for what Canadian and U.S. relationships have been in the past and hopefully what they’ll continue to be.”
What makes a good handshake?
(It’s important to note that the definition of a proper handshake can be different depending on the country and culture. But in this context, we’ll be discussing handshake etiquette in a North American context.)
Handshakes only last a matter of seconds and it’s within those few moments where you will make your first (and most likely lasting) impression.
But how does a good handshake start? With clean hands, Comeau says.
If you’re at a function and you’ve just finished eating, step away for a moment and make sure to wash your hands and dry them completely, she says. Nobody likes dirty or wet hands.
If you have sweaty hands, Comeau suggests carrying hand sanitizer with you or tissue with a bit of unscented talc powder to help dry up the sweat and oil.
Next, fix your posture, make eye contact and smile.
“In a North America context eye contact is really important because it reflects all these characteristics like trustworthiness and authenticity,” says Orr. “Even prior to extending your hand you need to make eye contact.”
As you’re going in for the actual handshake, be aware of your proximity, Orr says.
“You need to make sure that you’re within a close enough distance that you aren’t reaching or lunging at the person you’re shaking hands with,” she says. “Be in the right position in front of them and then extend your hand.”
When extending your hand, make sure your thumb is upwards at a 90-degree angle, Comeau adds.
“This is something most people don’t even realize,” she said. “Sometimes it goes sideways and you miss the handshake … It’s because your thumb was not straight up.”
Slip your hand all the way into the other person’s hand until the web in between your fingers meets with your partner’s and clasp around the fingers of the other person.
Bring your hands up and down two to three times and then let go.
Ideally a firm handshake is preferred in North America but be mindful of who you’re shaking hands with and don’t be quick to judge, Comeau says.
A weak handshake may be part of your handshake partner’s culture (often eastern cultures) where weaker handshakes are preferred or it could mean a disability is preventing them from getting a tight grip.
Otherwise, people will often perceive a person with a weak handshake as submissive, says Comeau.
“It can often be misinterpreted of somebody that is submissive, lacks power or confidence,” she said.
Orr adds that it could also signal that you’re not interested or engaged in the process.
Having a handshake that is too strong, however, can signal aggression, Orr says.
“An appropriately firm handshake says you’re confident in yourself and you’re looking forward to making a strong connection,” Orr said. “A bone-crushing kind of grip can say you’re attempting to assert an inappropriate level of dominance in the situation. There’s no need to overpower, it’s not a test of strength.”
The science behind the handshake
Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology concluded in 2012 that a handshake has the power to both increase the positive effect towards a favourable interaction, but it also has the power to diminish the impact of a negative impression.
“Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings,” lead author Sanda Dolcos said in a statement.
Another study in 2013 by the Weizmann Institute of Science even found that handshakes engage our sense of smell. Researchers saw that the study’s participants not only sniffed their own hands, but did so for a much longer time after shaking someone’s hand.
“Handshakes vary in strength, duration and posture, so they convey social information of various sorts,” Noam Sobel, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “But our findings suggest that at its evolutionary origins, handshaking might have also served to convey odor signals, and such signaling may still be a meaningful, albeit subliminal, component of this custom.”