The awkward handshake that gripped the world

Hands down: It is estimated that 77 people were born while Trump and Abe shook hands. © PA

A 19 second handshake between Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became a viral sensation last week. How much can you really tell about a person by the way they shake hands?

Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe sat opposite a horde of photographers at the White House. The time came for the symbolic handshake between the leaders of the USA and Japan.

The president leaned forward in his chair, ready for action. He seized Abe’s hand in a vice-like grip, using his spare hand to pat the top of Abe’s hand. On and on it went. At several points, Trump appeared to pull Abe towards him. When his hand was finally free and the ordeal was over, Abe switched his gaze over to his right, his face bore an expression that said: ‘Phew, thank goodness that’s over. What on earth was he doing?’

The video of the handshake went viral. When Trump welcomed Justin Trudeau, all eyes were on the Canadian PM to see how he would negotiate the handshake. But Trudeau came prepared: he pre-empted Trump’s tug by putting his spare hand on Trump’s upper arm.

Trump has had to shake a lot of hands in the last few months. His style is assertive and firm. The hand-taps and the yanking tugs are characteristic moves. It is, according to body language expert Darren Stanton, ‘all about the assertion of power and control’. Psychologists call this a ‘status reminder’.

There have also been suggestions that Trump’s aggressive handshakes are an overcompensation for his apparent germophobia.

In 2014, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that how you shake hands alters people’s impressions of you and reflects your own personality.

Four judges were trained to assess eight characteristics of a handshake: completeness of grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigour, texture, and eye contact. They then rated the handshakes of 112 people, who then took personality tests.

It turned out that those with firmer handshakes tended to be more open, extrovert and positive than others, and less shy and neurotic.

Handshake etiquette varies hugely around the world: in China, for instance, it is important to shake the oldest person’s hand first, gripping lightly, bowing slightly and avoiding eye contact.

But can shaking hands really tell you that much about someone’s personality?

Shake it up

Of course it can, say some. Shaking hands is a vital way of making an impression on people. And logic, as well as the evidence, tells us that someone with a relatively limp handshake — for example — is unlikely to be particularly confident or assertive.

People read too much into behavioural traits, say others. This is especially true of Donald Trump, whose every move is scrutinised by the media and who has legions of critics waiting for a chance to laugh at him. People love to believe this kind of thing, and so confirmation bias kicks in. This is all overblown.

You Decide

  1. Can handshakes tell you anything about someone’s personality?
  2. Which one piece of advice would you give on how to shake hands?


  1. Close your eyes, and shake hands with five people in your class. Can you guess who each person is by their handshake?
  2. Write down five key pieces of advice for shaking hands.

Some People Say...

“Shaking hands is a pointless custom.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does this matter to me?
Well, you will end up shaking hands a lot of times in your life, so it is always worth bearing in mind that people might judge you on your technique. A firm handshake establishes authority and control, which can sometimes be good, but make it too firm and you may come across as aggressive. And a handshake that is too limp may come across as weak.
Isn’t this mainly about custom, rather than personality?
To some extent, yes. In some countries, the unwritten rules for greeting people are quite strict, while in other countries, such as Britain and the USA, people are generally more easy-going. But even then, handshakes are usually expected when you meet someone for the first time.

Word Watch

Shinzo Abe
Japan’s 62-year-old prime minister is the president of the Liberal Democratic Party. At 52, he became Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister and the first to be born after the second world war.
Fear of germs. After Buzzfeed published salacious rumours about his private life, Trump famously said ‘I’m a germophobe’ as an attempt to help disprove the allegations.
Handshake etiquette
In some places, such as Russia and much of the Middle East, people generally do not shake the hand of the opposite sex. And in many other cultures, such as Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude and aggressive.
Confirmation bias
The tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. So for example, people who think Donald Trump is overly aggressive may be prone to searching for behavioural traits that back up that belief.

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