Recently, I read an interesting article about how people should shake hands in business interactions. According to the article, when you’re shaking hands with someone—unless they’re your superior at work—you should turn your palm down and position your hand above theirs. This is supposed to suggest you are the dominant person in the interaction, and subtly influence the other person to do what you want. This, we’re told, is the way powerful executives shake hands with people they meet—implying that, if you want the money and power they have, you should adopt their handshake.
To me, there’s an irony in literature on how to shake hands to make the “right impression,” and other teachings about how to impress people with assertive, confident or attractive body language. The irony is that these authors learn about the body language they teach by studying the behavior of people who naturally move their bodies that way.
For instance, the executives referenced in the article I read don’t shake hands the way they do because they read an article or took a course on handshakes. They came to shake hands that way without thinking or being self-conscious about it. The way they shake hands, and other aspects of their body language, are natural expressions of who they are. To them, their handshake is completely comfortable, and the possibility that they’re shaking hands “wrongly” doesn’t even occur to them.
By contrast, if you told someone who’d never before used the “dominant” or “palm-down” handshake to start using it, I’ll bet they would be completely uncomfortable. Every time they met someone, they’d have to focus their attention on their handshake to make sure they got it right. Being this anxious about the way you’re coming across isn’t very pleasant. And I don’t know about you, but walking around feeling like I had to imitate someone else’s movements to be socially acceptable wouldn’t do wonders for my self-esteem.
Communication consultant John Mattock puts this point nicely in Cross-Cultural Communication: The Essential Guide To International Business, in the context of learning the body language of people from foreign cultures:
Television programs, handbooks and training courses which touch on “personal communication” often dwell on body language . . . . People are fascinated, because the messages are directed at a human weak spot: insecurity about how others perceive us. But the advice and the warnings can have a damaging effect. The “communicator” enters his next transaction nervous of making a mistake, and the proceedings become stiff and unnatural.
Some people might read this and say “but I’m self-conscious about how I move my body all the time anyway. Since that’s how I am, I might as well learn body language that impresses people.” Others might say “but if you work on your handshake for a long time, you won’t be uncomfortable doing it anymore. It’s like developing any other skill.” A few years ago, I would have voiced the same objections.
Eventually, however, my perspective on this issue shifted. If researchers on body language learn the “right” ways to move one’s body by observing people who move that way without thinking, maybe the best way to make a good impression on others is to get rid of your self-consciousness. Perhaps the very reason powerful executives make a good impression, and are successful in business, is their lack of anxiety and inhibition. In other words, the best way to present yourself effectively is to stop agonizing over how you’re presenting yourself. This seems like a lot less work than meticulously studying other people’s body language and trying to imitate it.
How do you become less self-conscious? I could go on for many pages about this question. However, I’ll start by saying that, in my experience, one of the most effective methods is to carefully explore the reasons your self-consciousness exists. What impression do you need your body language to convey to people? When did you decide that the way you normally move your body isn’t good enough? What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t adopt the “right” body language?
Understanding why you have an insecurity is often the key to freeing yourself from it. Insecurities about the way we move our bodies, and more generally about how we appear to people, arise from a felt need to defend ourselves against others. Perhaps we’re afraid others will ridicule, ignore, attack, or harm us in some other way. We have to make our bodies look “right,” we believe, to prevent these things from happening.
As psychologist Sabine Wilhelm describes in Feeling Good About The Way You Look: A Program For Overcoming Body Image Problems, these fears tend to develop in our childhoods, when we’re at our most vulnerable. “Parents who have extremely high expectations, or are very critical in general, might also produce feelings of insecurity in a child,” she writes. “[T]hus, a minor appearance flaw or an occasional comment about some appearance issue might be blown out of proportion.”
When you bring your full attention to your fears about how you’re coming across, you’re likely to discover that many of those fears are obsolete. They arose out of conditions of your childhood environment that no longer exist today. The people you were afraid would criticize, exclude or attack you can’t hurt you anymore. When you have this realization, you feel freer to drop your insecurities and move through the world in a way that feels right to you.
(This article appeared in the Rich Life Carnival, located at http://yourfinishrichplan.com/blog/2008/05/16/rich-life-carnival-2/.)