CREATIVE CLICHÉ CORNER #2 – the hackneyed handshake!

The ubiquitous handshake stock shot has been a reliable backstop for the uninspired designer for decades. I’m even wondering whether I should have given it top billing above our old favourite, Creative Cliché #1, the light bulb..?

A business handshake


Emblazoned on business books, corporate websites, financial brochures, and almost anything else generically business-ish, earnest, firm, scrupulously clean hands projecting from suited cuffs are seen to: meet, greet and network; congratulate; seal deals; demonstrate agreement; and celebrate trust, balance and equality. Handshake images seem to be everywhere and, you’re probably thinking, they’re all pretty similar shots. But, beware, designer! If you absolutely must utilise the handshake cliché, please do make sure it’s the right kind of handshake for the job! – there are good ones and also bad ones. For regular design projects, you’ll probably be wanting a good one so, for fun, let’s look at the bad ones first:

(For this post, I’ve collated ideas from US, UK and North European writings. Many different traditions exist in other cultures.)

A full-on, very hard squeeze that says ‘I’m better and stronger than you’; a blatant show of strength. According to my research though, it seems that this heavy pressure can occasionally be a mistake, as in… big people don’t always know how strong they are. Something to bear in mind. THE VICE is sometimes accompanied by the ‘palm-down’ strategy, another show of domination.

THE DECOMPOSING CORPSE (my pet name for what’s usually termed THE DEAD FISH handshake)
The opposite of THE VICE, something akin to a floppy, raw chicken breast fillet being slipped into your hand. Thankfully, most of the time, it’s removed before you have to wonder what to do with it – you certainly couldn’t shake something this limp! THE DECOMPOSING CORPSE isn’t, as you might imagine, a manifestation of a weak personality; far from it, it’s conclusive proof of arrogance. Make no mistake, this person doesn’t like you but hey, don’t take it personally… she doesn’t like anyone else either, apart from herself of course!

Similar to THE CORPSE but much faster. This person doesn’t have time to waste on bonding with you. He’s in a hurry and he thinks his time is far more important than yours.

Seems friendly but, underneath, it’s all a about power! This shaker performs a textbook handshake, and then some! Whilst he has hold of your right hand, his left hand is patronising you: patting your shaking hand; touching your arm or shoulder solicitously; or treating you with excessive friendliness and care, as if you need ‘parental’ reassurance from the ‘grown-up’. Unless the two of you really are good friends, his actions might make you feel inferior, dominated, even childlike. And that’s what he wants. He might follow up by placing his hand on your back and ‘helping’ you through a doorway.

A cupped hand is offered but it refuses to touch your palm – it would be just too intimate for this shrinking violet. Here lurks the weak character, afraid of human contact, fearing that full-on flesh-to-flesh contact might reveal too much about this person.

A bit like a high-five but at handshake level. You’ll observe this shake only in the under-25s apparently. Only engage in it if you’re good friends.

So, what’s the right way to shake hands? Here’s the recommended-for-job-interviews method:

Approach with a vertical palm, neither threatening (palm facing down, dominating) nor submissive (palm up). Eye contact is important, but don’t be threatening or confrontational. Smile. Go in matching thumb-webs and hold. No need to shake, but ok if you want to; three times is enough – don’t hang on too long. Don’t dominate. If the other party does try to dominate you, disengage, smile again and move on.

As a postscript, I’ll admit to having used a handshake image on a book cover once. I like to think it was acceptable because it wasn’t the usual boring stock shot representing agreement but something a little more stylish, – it was almost a bad handshake, representing assertiveness. I forgive myself because I still rather like it and also because, when a chap turns round in her lifetime really quite a lot of print, it might be ok to use each cliché just once..? For the record, here’s the book cover…

Assertiveness at Work book cover

The handshake was a rights-managed shot from Getty Images


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