Let’s talk about that handshake…

The uncomfortable and bizarre world of Donald Trump's greeting
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/06/2017
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left,is greeted by U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 13.

The art of the business greeting is not a lost art. Despite efforts by the germophobes of the world to change it — see Barack Obama’s fist bump or the bizarre routine of touching elbows — the handshake still reigns supreme.

There are wrong ways and right ways to do a handshake. You don’t want to have clammy hands. Nor do you want to shake hands fresh out of the washroom if your hands aren’t completely dry — that’s just gross. You don’t want to be too firm or too weak. And you don’t want to miss, going in too high or too low.

When you start thinking about it, there are plenty of ways for a simple introductory maneuver to go awry.

I’ve never seen a handshake diagnosed the way the Donald Trump-Justin Trudeau grip has been. Frame-by-frame analysis, endless commentary and general kudos delivered the Canadian prime minister’s way for countering the U.S. president’s bizarre greeting.

We watched HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently, and though he didn’t comment on the Trudeau event itself, he did run a montage of Trump’s aggressive handshake. It’s one of the stranger things I’ve seen in life.

A post on Jezebel described it this way — “(It) involves him yanking the other person’s arm and shaking it for several beats longer than expected.”

Saying “several beats” may be understating it a tad — Trump’s handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lasted 19 seconds. That’s uncomfortably long by any measure.

The clips from John Oliver’s show made it clear it can also be quite violent — in some cases he literally pulls the other person off balance. No doubt it is a calculated power move on Trump’s part, a very old school way of saying, “I’m the alpha dog.”

I know I wouldn’t like that greeting, I doubt you would — and I’m sure Trump would hate it if the tables were turned.

We spend a lot of time in the pages of Canadian HR Reporter discussing and debating what makes a good leader. Empathy often comes up as the number one trait, but other stalwarts such as holding people accountable for their actions and trust also make regular appearances.

The Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois did some research into the handshake. It has ancient roots, apparently, as a simple way of proving to a stranger you aren’t carrying weapons. A friendly handshake “not only increases the positive effect toward a favourable interaction, but it also diminishes the impact of a negative impression,” said Sanda Dalcos, a psychology postdoctoral research associate. “Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings.”

What works best? It was summed up thusly — “A firm, confident, yet friendly handshake.”

Domination never enters the discussion. It is simply not a leadership trait, and it doesn’t set the stage for collaboration. If anything, it’s a sign of weakness. The only message it sends is “I think I’m better than you, I think I’m stronger than you, and I’m going to beat you down.”

Maybe this kind of bravado played well in the 1970s and 1980s, I don’t know. But it seems so uncomfortably out of place in 2017 — we simply know better and can see past this garbage.

So kudos to Trudeau. Not for his political leaning, but for his simple raising of his left hand to brace himself against Trump’s alpha move. We will continue to debate the merits of what makes a great leader, but aggressive physical power moves aren’t in the textbooks any more. Thankfully.

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