The Handshake of Character Development

business.gov.au, the Australian Government's dedicated business website1Have you ever stopped to consider the handshake?  It is a non-verbal form of communication, and it can tell you volumes about a person.  It is usually the first contact in a face-to-face transaction, used not only as a greeting form, but as an aid in assessing the other person’s confidence, assertiveness, aggression, or social skills.  What if the handshake is weak or strong, clammy or crushing?  Is it too short (which sends the signal that the person who breaks off the touch either disdains or disrespects the partner), or too long (which is an invasion of private space, too intimate, or disconcerting – it can even interrupt verbal exchange if it’s too awkward)?  Is it a neutral-valued exchange, or does the touch signify some ulterior motive (power-play, intimidation, invasion of the partner’s intimate sphere, a sexual connotation, etc.)?  What difference does it make for any of the above factors to take place between partners of the same sex vs. the opposite sex?  In other words, if two men shake hands and one is crushing, what message comes across differently if the partner being crushed is a woman?  Different cultural interpretations enter into the equation as well, as touch signifies various things in various cultures.  What difference is there to a handshake with a superior or authority figure to that of a peer or inferior?  What if the superior is a woman shaking the hand of a man of lower rank?  Or a woman of lower rank?  Or a man from a culture that does not recognize women as authority figures?

When developing a character for a novel, the handshake can be a telling gesture.  Even if none of the above questions are answered explicitly in your manuscript, just answering the questions for yourself can go a long way to your own understanding of the character, and how you want to express them to your readership.  So the next time you shake someone’s hand, alert your writer’s mind to take notes – putting those feelings into words develops your senses far more than simply identifying those feelings.  There have been a lot of studies on body language, particularly in the field of international business.  For a humorous yet telling video of the “Top Ten Bad Business Handshakes”, click on the image above.

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