You've got to hand it to William Chaplin. His psychology students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa asked him if people can actually form lasting opinions about people's personalities through a simple handshake. He didn't know the answer -- so Chaplin suggested his students design a research study about handshakes to find out.
The proposed study, co-authored by Chaplin and four undergraduates, was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Chaplin and his young colleagues analyzed the handshakes of 112 university students for nine different personality traits.
The findings inject some science into common sense. It seems a handshake can indeed be an ally in making a positive impression in the world. Similarly, it follows that a good handshake has potential to boost self-esteem and emotional health.
Whether it's to present yourself at a job interview, meet someone new in a social setting or greet your doctor, a firm handshake signals extroversion, according to the researchers.
This finding is hardly surprising, but the results get more unpredictable from there. A firm handshake also led researchers to believe the person was more capable of expressing emotions than an individual offering a weak handshake.
Women will be interested to know the firmer they shake hands, the more positive an impression they make. The study's results dispel any notion that women with firm handshakes are overly aggressive (do people really still think that way?).
A firm handshake also indicates "openness to new experiences" but only among women. On the other hand, men who greet people with weak handshakes were rated as unwilling to try something new.
What's more, a weak handshake consistently signaled such negative personality traits as shyness, lack of confidence and emotional instability in hundreds of brief encounters. Talk about not making a good impression.
A handshake might be fleeting, but Chaplin says other new research shows the impressions we form about people in the first 20 seconds are typically confirmed in longer periods of contact in later encounters. Making the right impression can help us feel better about our relationships and place in the world.
"Lots of our everyday behavior is interactive," says Chaplin. "We are all influenced by how people treat us."
Chaplin says whether firm or weak, people use handshakes to gauge whether they like someone.
"We tend to shake hands most often with strangers, and not shake as much with friends," he says. "We use handshakes as a tool to learn."
Making a conscious effort to change your handshake style is not all that easy, says Chaplin, even if you study the eight factors for a strong handshake: completeness of grip, temperature (warm), dryness (sweaty palms are more problematic for men), strength (the cornerstone of a positive handshake), duration (too brief is not good), vigor, texture (soft is OK for women, not men) and eye contact. Even business seminars emphasizing firm handshakes (people pay significant money for these tips) don't figure to be effective in his estimation.
"Telling someone to develop a firmer handshake is similar to telling a person don't be shy or introverted," explains Chaplin. "It sounds good but it pretty much doesn't work over the long term."
Moreover, a handshake is "automatic and overlearned," says Chaplin. It would feel weird or forced if someone tries to override their normal tendency.
"Part of a good handshake," says Chaplin, "is that it is normal."
He adds that most kids begin the learning process by junior high, when adults start shaking hands with them regularly. Shake enough hands, maybe a couple hundred or thereabouts, and you are forming an impression-maker for life.
Parents can do their part.
"Most of the people in the study [who offered firm handshakes] commented that Mom and Dad talked about the importance of a good handshake," says Chaplin.