Dodge the hug, not the handshake

Palm-to-palm contact is crucial if you want to make a good impression

Photo Illustration By Taylor Shute

Patti Wood sees a disturbing new trend: the decline of the handshake. Germophobes are shunning palm-to-palm contact and it’s hurting their careers, says the author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.

According to Wood, it takes an average of three hours of continuous face-to-face interaction to develop the same level of rapport you get instantly with a handshake. “Yes, it’s amazing that you can shake hands with someone and, in a moment, make him feel as safe and comfortable with you as if you’d been talking for hours.”

The handshake is so vital that Wood speaks up if someone refuses hers. “I say, ‘Put out your hand!’” the author said on the phone from Decatur, Georgia. “Even if you don’t get a good handshake, you can say, ‘Let’s try that again,’ and go in for a better grip.”

As she explains, first impressions are made in a split second. “We can form an accurate first impression in 100 milliseconds – less than the time it takes to snap our fingers.”

If you’re nervous, try focusing your attention on the person you’re meeting. “A lot of self-consciousness is that you meet someone and you go, ‘How do I look? Do they like me?’ Instead, get out of that by thinking, ‘How are they feeling? Are they having a good day?’ Be connected and in the moment. The other person can immediately feel that you’re with them. It’s the charisma thing.”

To execute the perfect greeting, approach the person with confidence, keeping your head level and your hands at your sides. “We don’t trust people with hands in their pockets,” she writes. Smile briefly but don’t overdo it. “If you smile too much or too long, you can be perceived as submissive.”

Make direct eye contact. “Good eye contact increases feelings of trust. Don’t stare, but don’t look at your shoes either.”

Wood, who analyzes body language for news networks like CNN, observed that vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan used the classic “politician’s handshake” when he shook hands with Joe Biden at the last debate. “He went in high up the arm for more control,” says Wood. Biden countered by using his left hand to grab Ryan’s elbow. “The person can’t move their arm if someone grabs the elbow. It controls.”

Hugging is becoming more popular, but not everyone is comfortable with it. “When you hug, you expose the front of your body, opening all your body windows. It can make some people feel vulnerable. Other people feel it is too intimate, even too sexual, for everyday interactions.”

Wood cites Bono from U2, who made front-page news when he dodged a hug from President George W. Bush. “Bono said he didn’t feel like being the recipient of a hug from someone he disagreed with on so many issues.”

Wood’s book includes “Hug Dodge Instructions” such as “break eye contact; extend your right hand for a handshake; then step back outside the intimate zone to signal you are done and that you don’t want to follow the handshake with a hug.” Bono stepped behind a podium when the “affectionate” Bush approached him.

The author also has some advice for those who are meeting in cyberspace. The first email, she says, should always be as formal as a letter. “I think you need the ‘dear’ when it’s an initial interaction,” says Wood. Business people receive hundreds of emails a day, so keep yours brief. A paragraph should be no longer than two sentences. “They don’t have your tone, and you don’t know if they’re enjoying what they’re reading or if they’re thinking this is stupid and silly.”

Once the email is sent, then there’s the “black hole” of waiting for a reply. “The absence of feedback makes us go to the negative,” Wood explains. “You’re wondering, ‘Have I become an irritation to the other person?’ ”

Whatever you do, Wood says, don’t send an angry, worried email back demanding a reply. “If I haven’t heard back from someone and I wasn’t sure we were done in the last email, I will say, ‘I was just re-reading your email, and boom!, this thought came to me.’ ”

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