As a Recruiter for almost 2 years, I’ve experienced my fair share of handshakes from all walks of life.
As someone who’s also experienced a fair share of diversity in business and educational settings, I’ve experienced a fair share of different kinds of handshakes, as well. I’ve realized that being aware of different cultural norms regarding handshakes and general business exchanges is surprisingly very relevant for any occupation.
When I first signed up to teach English at the Hmong American Partnership in Minneapolis (which is a fantastic organization), the Volunteer Coordinator told me that I’d be teaching American business etiquette and basic vocabulary to the Beginners’ night class. She told me that this particular class had a majority of Somali students, an even amount of 8-12 men and women.
Somali men don’t typically shake hands with women, not necessarily due to a difference in equality, but due to a difference in gender roles in their culture. She told me not to be offended if some of the newer students wouldn’t shake my hand right away; oftentimes, they just aren’t aware of this custom in the US, but they do respect that they’ve come to our country and are actively trying to learn and adapt. In hindsight, one of my more awkwardly memorable handshakes as a Recruiter with a young Somali man finally made sense.
In preparation for working in Korea, I knew it was my responsibility to respect and adapt to their culture. However, it’s difficult adjusting to another culture, and it rarely just happens overnight. In many Asian countries, like Japan and Korea, handshakes are usually limp, using two hands. Hand placement varies depending on some hierarchical or specific cultural variables; typically, the loose hand will hold the wrist or arm of the dominant hand, or both hands will be used for a light cusp. Eye contact can be considered rude.
Of course, in the US, Americans make strong eye contact and use an equally strong, firm grip; it’s important that your grip is not too strong, but not too weak. Many employers make hiring decisions off of the appropriateness of someone’s handshakes.
I’ve had many co-workers who stick by the argument that handshakes are a show of character. For the most part, I personally think too much emphasis on handshakes during the hiring process is ridiculous because it’s oftentimes irrelevant to job performance. There are usually more important qualifications to prioritize. Yes, in some relationship-management or business-related positions, it’s important, but it’s all dependent upon each specific position’s job duties. For example, in some international business positions, a handshake could be viewed as a test of respect and awareness (or ignorance) between cultures, so an emphasis on handshakes would actually be relevant to job performance. On the flip side, who cares if an Accountant has a weak grip?
Unless you’re incredibly cultured, you’re not going to be aware of all the different cultural norms that you’ll inevitably come across as the world globalizes. It’s important to realize where cultural norms vary, though, and be open-minded about why people might do or say something in a certain way rather than just jumping to judgments. Be flexible, understanding and realistic when you do make judgments.
Interested in reading a quick article to learn about cultural expectations for handshakes among 14 different countries around the world? Click here.