Silent Communication, Part V

This month’s column will continue the discussion of communication through the use of our hands but focus on what we silently say with our handshake.

The ancient practice of handshaking is considered to have evolved from a gesture demonstrating that neither party held a weapon, thereby establishing trust. Since the industrial revolution, the handshake became the official method of confirming a commercial transaction. Today, the handshake is most commonly used in greetings and departures.

A father may give advice to his son when preparing for a job interview and encourage the son to offer a firm handshake when greeting his perspective employer. “Men like men who have a firm handshake,” the father may offer. “It is a sign of a strong person.” A person that does not have a strong personality may attempt, however, to mask his weaker personality with a strong handshake.

Likewise, a weak handshake may not be a sign of a weak or submissive person. Those who use their hands in their professions, such as surgeons or musicians, often have weak handshakes. Since many parishioners are older, and some develop arthritis in their hands, priests have learned to offer weak handshakes to parishioners to avoid causing the recipients of their handshakes any discomfort. Therefore, a weak handshake could simply indicate a courteous or empathetic personality.

Though strong or weak handshakes often do not provide reliable insight into a personality, some other types of handshakes are indicative of certain traits. For example, a person who uses both hands to your one in a handshake is often attempting to convey honesty while seeking control. This type of handshake is often not well received as it is unduly physical and can be uncomfortably domineering.

The combination handshake with an arm clasp is another type of handshake that is often not well received. Society has given permission for one person to shake another person’s hand, not to touch the forearm. To do so is often interpreted as an unwanted invasion of personal space. Like the two-handed handshake, the handshake with arm clasp usually indicates the seeking of control. It could be intended to convey a feeling of care or concern, but it is often received as an expression of arrogance.

A person who pumps the other person’s hand is usually indicating enthusiasm. The enthusiasm could be toward the other person or as the result of anticipation of the forthcoming meeting or discussion. A salesperson will often use a pumping handshake while repeating a greeting such as, “It is nice to meet you, so very, very nice to meet you.”

If, during a handshake, a person’s hand turns to the left so that the palm of the hand faces downward, it indicates an expression of dominance. Conversely, if a person’s hand turns to the right so the palm is facing upward, it indicates submission or an accommodating personality. In most handshakes, however, the hands are vertical and equal indicating that neither person is seeking control nor willing to yield control to the other.

In early America through the mid 1900s, women would curtsy rather than shake hands. Even today, priests will sometimes encounter ladies who do not offer their hands in greeting but will either curtsy or offer an abbreviated curtsy such as a slight head nod. In most cases today, however, women shake hands in greeting. The same indications described above generally apply to female handshakes except that women seldom offer a firm handshake.

Next month’s column will conclude the discussion of the nonverbal ways we communicate with our fingers and hands.

MR. LENELL, C.P.A., Ph.D., is the director for financial and administrative services for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill. Dr. Lenell’s book Income Taxes for Priests Only is published by “Fathers Guide.” He lectures and conducts workshops and does consulting to several dioceses on priests’ taxes, compensation, and retirement planning. Write to Dr. Lenell, c/o The Priest magazine with questions, or e-mail him at