The Grip Test
Credit: KAGAN MCLEOD

The way you shake hands can seal a business deal. It can also clinch a reputation

There are a couple of time-honoured strategies for dealing with business partners, clients and the public. One is to treat others with respect, expecting to be treated the same way in return. Another is to establish your authority via displays of dominance.

There is no doubt which approach Nina Durante favours. As founder of the Social Graces International Etiquette consultancy in Vancouver, Durante is a leading proponent of the golden rule in daily interactions. But the current occupant of the White House offers a competing example, and the president of the United States is always going to be influential.

If you choose to take the high road, bully for you. It’s all very well to be on your best behaviour, but what do you do when faced with someone apparently intent on aggression and domination?

World leaders offer an excellent example of how body language reveals character, Durante says. “You only have seconds to make a strong first impression, and body language is the primary factor in that impression, followed by tone and, finally, the actual words spoken.”

In our business lives, chances are our behaviours and body language won’t be analyzed over and over again by the media, Durante notes. But especially in the world of social media and cellphones, where every action can be caught on camera and posted for everyone on the planet to see, now more than ever we need to be aware of what our actions are saying.

Mastering body language is all about body awareness, Durante says. “Your posture, eye contact and handshake. Stand and sit erect; have your chin up with your shoulders back,” she advises. Hands in your pocket and folded arms can send the wrong message.

Durante knows of at least one company that makes a practice of observing the body language of job applicants not only during interviews but in the reception area beforehand. “They believe this will give them an understanding of how a potential candidate would represent their company when the boss isn’t looking,” she says.

A common bit of advice is to avoid the limp-fish handshake—offering up your flaccid appendage to be squeezed like an overripe plum. Firm grips are always preferred. But how far do you go with that? Once again 2017 has provided us with a cautionary example by way of the White House. Among Donald Trump’s favourite tricks is an aggressive handshake in which he seems to yank the recipient toward him.

“This is a fantastic example of how body language can speak louder than words,” Durante says. “The world isn't talking about what President Trump is saying in these greetings.”

How does one deal with this sort of behaviour politely? When you know such a tactic is coming, you need to practise your response. “Have someone role play to give you an idea of the feel and how you need to respond so that your actions demonstrate that you are calm, strong and able to hold your own.”

But don’t overdo it. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron anticipated Trump’s tactic and gripped his hand so tightly their knuckles turned white. “This encounter was a textbook example of what not to do from an etiquette perspective when shaking hands, from both parties,” Durante says. “The white knuckles went too far and, in my opinion, showed aggressive assertion indicating battle instead of a calm, powerful confidence.”

Can there be a middle ground between allowing oneself to be bullied and showing aggression in return? Very much so, says Durante, citing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the White House. On his first meeting with the president, Trudeau remained balanced by bracing himself on Trump’s right shoulder. In their second encounter, Trudeau controlled the handshake and was the first to disengage. “Both times Trudeau was calmly assertive and wasn’t overpowered by President Trump’s aggressive handshake,” Durante says. “A very classy way to demonstrate strength.”

Ultimately, Durante instructs, you can only do you. “Remember that your body language says so much about you,” she says, “and the actions of others say so much about them.”

And with that I offer you a damp and squishy hand of farewell.