If there’s one thing that’s come under even more scrutiny than Donald Trump’s executive orders, it’s his handshakes. From his epic, 19-second marathon handshake with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe to his yanking pull-in with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s shakes straddle the line between power-move confidence and oblivious social ineptitude. As Trump handshake compilations become the hot meme of the moment, we wondered: When and how does a handshake turn sour? And what’s going on in the mind of the unfortunate recipient of a handshake that’s either too long and firm or too short and limp?
When It’s Too Long… And Hard
A grip that just won’t quit can send two very different messages, according to psychologists. The first, as explained by communication expert Leslie Shore, is one of dominance: “If your handshake feels like a pitbull’s jaws that just won’t let go, you’re telling that person you’re in control and you’re superior to them,” she says.
But you can’t rely on that as an effective tool for asserting yourself: The second message a lengthy handshake may send, as explained by human behavior specialist Shelli Chosak, is that of uncertainty. “Holding a handshake for too long says you’re feeling unsure of yourself, and thus, don’t trust yourself to maintain a connection with that other person,” she explains.
In either case, the way the person whose hand you’re shaking feels about you will be reinforced: If they see you as some kind of leader, the long, firm shake will reassure them of this idea. If they see you as a floundering incompetent, however, this shake will simply support the feeling that you’re desperately overcompensating.
When It’s Too Short… And Soft
According to Chosak, a limp handshake “sends the message that you want to avoid contact or making a real connection with the other person.” Whether this is a result of general discomfort, dislike of the person or viewing any form of touching as intrusive to yourself or the other person, its meaning is clear: You don’t want any part of that handshake.
The same effect can be achieved, says Chosak, by not making eye contact with the person when shaking — in both instances, you’re indicating that you don’t really care about making a true connection with that person.
When It’s Just Right
Chosak believes that the perfect handshake relies on your being able to read and react to the other person’s body language, then adjusting the length and pressure of the shake accordingly. “Think about how you would shake hands with someone with whom you truly feel safe, connected and comfortable,” she recommends. “Then, check out [the response of the new person you’re shaking hands with] to help guide you to what you do next.” If the other person loosens their grip, let go. If the other person tightens their grip, give the handshake an extra affirming pump or two.
The perfect handshake, says Shore, sends a message that you’re confident and have a good understanding of social norms, “which is always a good place to start any relationship.”
None of which, unfortunately, bodes well for the future of U.S. diplomatic relations.