I’ve been reading a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink recently, where he talks about the phenomenon of, among other things, thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is essentially just a fancy word for that notion that you can glean a significant amount of information from minutiae, often unconsciously. I was reminded of this recently while musing about the miracle of the handshake.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve gone to nearly 2 dozen meetings, and shaken over 3 dozen unique hands. Many of these hands belonged to CEOs or VCs or people who would just as soon shake my hand as spit in it (and not in a good way either). One of these hands belonged to a guy with a billion-dollar collection of Salvador Dali originals in his house in Makati. Another belonged to the manager of Little Richard back in the day. And another belonged to the CEO of a multi-million-dollar Australian tech company. The rich, successful types usually shake hands in very similar ways, because they’ve done it so many times that it’s become reflex.
The general process is to grasp, pump, squeeze and release, but the timing of the release and the amount of squeeze you exert is crucial. Why is it crucial? Because people thin-slice you on the basis of your handshake.
Because there is a very specific way to properly shake someone’s hand, there are myriad erroneous ways as well. My personal peeve is what I like to call the faggot-shake, which is where the guy just slips his hand into yours and lets you do all the work. No pump, no squeeze. Just the barest hint of a grasp, a pause, then release. This is how women in polite society shake hands. When a guy shakes your hand like this, it basically means that he wants to be treated like a lady.
Recently, I’ve noticed the faggot-shake employed more and more by blowhards, which is surprising because you’d expect these types of people to have very forceful handshakes. Instead, they place their clammy hands in yours and wait for you to shake, then proceed to bore you to death with their own personal illusions of grandeur. Thankfully, I know that the best way to handle a blowhard is to pretend you’re impressed. (It makes for amusing stories to your friends afterwards.)
On the other side of the spectrum is the samson-shake, which is often used by people who feel they have a lot to prove, and thus try too hard to show (irrelevant) physical strength. These guys squeeze hard and try to see if you’ll wince. I’ve seen this mostly from guys with crappy jobs. They usually have a big shit-eating grin on their face when they do it too.
Another variation is the eternal-shake, i.e., the guys that won’t let go. This is due to inexperience more than anything else, and I’ve learned that you shouldn’t really read too much into this one. (On the other hand, the very fact that the guy you’re shaking hands with is inexperienced might be enough to get a good idea of whether he’s lying to you or not.)
The trick about reading these hand-shakes is to keep it in context. For example, the aussie CEO had a samson-esque handshake, which confused me until I realized that it was probably because he was twice my weight. He looked right at me when he gave the squeeze too, and you could tell that it was a very subtle test. The only thing to do at that point is squeeze back, otherwise, I’d be marked as a lightweight.
Why do I put so much thought into these hand-shakes? Well, I’m obsessive about details, by nature. But the bigger reason is that a person’s actions don’t lie quite as well as his words do, and I need every bit of help I can get figuring these people out.