First Person: Power plays and the art of the handshake

When I was a teenager, my brother-in-law publicly chastised me for my weak handshake and complete failure to make direct eye-contact at the point of engagement.

It was, he said, unmanly and sent the wrong message. Career opportunities would pass me by, social doors would not open for me. I would not walk the corridors of power.

At that particular time in my life the spirit of rebellion was taking up fairly permanent residence in my psyche, so I did what any self-respecting 17-year-old would do.

I cultivated the limpest handshake humanly possible, and refused to make eye-contact with my brother-in-law for the rest of my life.

Of course, career opportunities did pass me by, social doors were slammed in my face and security guards politely redirected me if I accidentally stumbled into a corridor of power.

Clearly I failed the vital test of first impressions. My handshake revealed my own self-doubt, my own failure to be a man, and everyone could feel it. It was my undoing.

Clearly I failed the vital test of first impressions. My handshake revealed my own self-doubt, my own failure to be a man, and everyone could feel it. It was my undoing.

Then came “the art of the handshake”.

What was that move Donald Trump was pulling on unsuspecting world leaders? You had to watch it several times in slow motion to grasp the nuances of the thing. A sort of a fake, then a grab and pull, followed by a twist and pat. It was the handshake that spoke. It said, “I’ll catch you off guard, I’m trickier than you, I’m smarter than you, I’m more powerful than you, and I’m completely crazy”.

And it made me think about the variants of that particular form of greeting. The finger-squeezer, the knuckle-crusher, or the woeful politician’s handshake that uses “both hands”, the power right hand, followed up by the patronising left.

Of course, in reality, there was no universal hand-shaking code.

In Europe and the Middle East the handshake seems to speak another language altogether.

It’s gentler and slower. It doesn’t speak of power, it says I’m calm, confident and fairly sexy.

Of course Afro-Americans have blown the handshake into a whole new dimension.

It’s hand-jiving with a complex array of choreographed idiosyncratic moves. It’s expressive, detailed, ironic, humorous and extremely time-consuming. I love it. But I’ll do mine without eye contact.

Simon Bourke is a Fairfax journalist

This story Power plays and the art of the handshake first appeared on The Northern Daily Leader.