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Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On

Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On
There's More To Social Ritual Than Palm Meets Palm, Such As How Many Times You Pump, And What You Do With Your Other Hand

January 19, 2005
By WILLIAM WEIR,Courant Staff Writer

When the inaugural balls take place in Washington this week, the attendees' dress, the food, and the performers will be the things to watch for many. But for those like Cindy Grosso, the real draw will be that gesture ubiquitous in everyday life, yet so unexamined: the handshake.

"The handshake is the universal symbol of peace and greeting," says Grosso, who operates the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette in South Carolina. It goes back to the Middle Ages, when soldiers would put their right hands up high to show they weren't carrying weapons. It's been refined but still serves as a way to size each other up. The dead fish, the overly aggressive handshake and the finger squeeze are all dead giveaways as to who you're dealing with.

And observing events like inaugural balls is like watching masters of the craft.

"I would probably say politicians are the best hand-shakers," she says. "They do it so much, and they probably have an image consultant working with them."

In social settings, handshaking is based on the rules of chivalry. So, in a male-female encounter, it's the woman who chooses to extend her hand. In business, it's based on military protocol, so whoever ranks higher should be the first to reach out. At political events, the rules get trickier. Should Jodi Rell meet up with Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's Rell's prerogative to extend or not. Because Connecticut was admitted to the union before California, our newest guv outranks the Gubernator in the world of handshaking. For senators and representatives, it comes down to who's been in office longer.

Grosso says she can tell a lot about someone by their handshake, including what type of car they drive (not the year and make, she says, just a general description). Second to politicians, CEOs and upper-management types also have a well-developed shake.

"There are a lot of smart people in the lower levels of corporate America because they haven't learned the art of presenting themselves," she says.

Though Abraham Lincoln complained at one inaugural ball that handshaking was rougher than rail-splitting, presidents have traditionally been among the best. For sheer quantity, William McKinley is untouchable. The 25th president supposedly holds the record for most energetic presidential handshaking, 2,500 people in one hour.

George W. Bush, for his part, seems well aware of the importance of good handshaking. From what she can tell, Grosso says Bush's signature shake includes good eye contact, a firm grip and a maneuver where he puts his left hand on the elbow or shoulder of the other person. That's the archetypical "politician's handshake," and Grosso says it's a good one. The dimensions of our personal space are about 21 inches from our bodies - about the length of the average arm. So Bush's shake allows him to get as close as possible without making the other person uncomfortable.

During the debates, some noted that John Kerry pulled Bush toward him when they shook at the start of the debate. Perhaps unconsciously, shaking experts say, Kerry was saying, "I'm bringing you into my territory." Or perhaps Kerry simply wanted to emphasize how much taller he was.

Patti Wood, who runs Communications Dynamics in Atlanta, says the typical handshake is so loaded with personal information that it's the equivalent of three hours of verbal interaction. Much of the information, though, is abstract.

"When you shake hands, you get a chemical read on that person and get some information from them," says Wood, who trains business people in the art of human interaction. "You're sharing chemical information, like dogs sniffing each other." There's even some human sniffing involved: The faint detection of powders, deodorants or other odors during the shake serve as a mnemonic device for future encounters with that person, she says.

Wood's website features a Handshakes Self Evaluation Tool that, among other things, asks, "How many pumps should there be in a business handshake?" and "Would you reflect before purchasing goods or services from someone who gave you a bone-crusher handshake?"

Though there's less pomp and circumstance on the streets of New York than at the average inaugural ball, the handshake is still a serious matter. For about two years, filmmaker Michael P. Britto has combed the five boroughs documenting the history of the handshake and how they vary regionally, and even from one block to another.

"A lot of these younger kids really take these things seriously. They want to feel they belong to something," he says.

That often means elaborate combinations of slaps, knuckle bumping and other maneuvers to set a signature shake for a gang, club or neighborhood group.

"Because they don't see each other, they think they've got something different," he says. "But I know the people around the other corner are doing the same thing."

For his efforts, Britto has been threatened by gang members who think he's a cop trying to get information about their secret handshakes. But with enough persistence, he's usually able to persuade them to show him the gang shake.

The Masons, though, are a tougher bunch. "The Masons - they don't break," he says. "I haven't gotten any of them to talk about it. That interests me, that they won't show it to me."

Britto hopes to complete the film "Gimme Five: History of a Handshake" by the end of the year. He's received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts but is looking for more money so he can follow the handshake well beyond New York. He's heard from a group in the Midwest who are trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most elaborate handshake. And with enough money, he'd like to travel to Africa and Europe to delve into global differences in handshakes.

Robert E. Brown, co-author of "The Power of Handshaking: For Peak Performance Worldwide" (Capital Books, $19.95), says the most valuable information is sometimes conveyed after most of the work of the handshake is done.

"At the end of the handshake, I'll relax my hand and leave the fingers curved," he says. "And in that split second, they'll push, pull or twist. It's in that microsecond - that's where the information comes across. ... He may be saying, `This sounds like a great program,' but the handshake tells you, `No, I'm not interested.'"

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Author: By WILLIAM WEIR, Courant Staff Writer

Source: Article published in the Hartford Courant

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