Life Is Tough for Awkward People, Confirms the Field of Handshake-Ology

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I know the point of this Harvard Business Review article by Francesca Gino is that handshakes are a good move for anyone involved in negotiation since they tend to both improve someone’s perception of you and lead to joint outcomes, but I couldn’t help read it a bit differently: The world is a tough place for awkward people! What if you simply are not great at shaking hands?

I speak from a bit of past experience here. While I am now good at faking normal in everyday social interactions (I think?), as a kid, I wasn’t. My parents regularly chided me to make eye contact, I didn’t really know how to talk to people in big group settings, and my handshake was probably deader than a dead fish.

Reading the article, it’s hard not to get the sense that those whose awkwardness lingers are in for some trouble in the adult world. Handshakes (and, presumably, other similar rituals) play a big role in those crucial early moments when we first meet someone:

People make inferences about one another’s motives based on first impressions, which occur extremely quickly. We only need 100 milliseconds to form judgments of others on all sorts of dimensions, including likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness. Even more interesting, our first impressions of others are generally accurate and reliable. For instance, first impressions about a person’s competence have been shown to be good predictors of important outcomes such as who will win a political election.

This is great for all the assertive, confident Joe Businessman and Josephina Businesswoman types out there. But are these impressions really accurate? The studies mentioned by Gino don’t really show that first impressions accurately predict whether someone is competent, but rather that they accurately predict who other people will view as competent.

What it comes down to is that those of us who aren’t great in corporate, network-y settings are getting punished for a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter when it comes to our ability to think, work, or be part of a team. We know from research into unstructured interviews (some of which I mentioned in my piece arguing for the abolition of the cover letter and résumé) that they’re a terrible way to evaluate job candidates, for instance. And our gut instincts tend to perform worse than simple algorithms when it comes to hiring decisions, according to other research — research which was mentioned in, just to take a random example, Harvard Business Review.

So, awkward-but-nonetheless-competent people of the world, unite! Let’s come up with our own way of giving off positive first impressions. Maybe it should include the emailed exchange of obscure memes from Reddit?

Life Is Tough If You Give Awkward Handshakes