How to Shake Hands with Presidents

The History and Science of A Strong Handshake


In December of 1971 Elvis Presley was on the red-eye flight from his palace in Los Angeles to Washington DC. He was flying with his personal collection of guns and police badges on a mission to meet President Nixon at The White House.

Elvis had his heart set on obtaining a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In her memoir Elvis and Me, Priscilla Presley recalls that Elvis felt that he would be above the law with this badge. She writes:

“With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”

The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll believed that he could earn his Federal Narcotics badge through a simple handshake with the President.


The handshake is an ancient and globally accepted gesture of professionalism, respect, and confidence.

Images depicting gods, kings, and soldiers shaking hands can be found on some of the earliest remnants of human culture. Shaking hands is a gesture of peace and a powerful nonverbal indicator of another’s personality.

Until recently the science of shaking hands was never deeply explored. New findings show the powerful influence a handshake can have on first impressions and the science behind a firm handshake.

Variations of shaking hands have existed in human culture for over 3,800 years.

Some of the earliest recorded evidence of a handshake is a carving of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III shaking hands with King Marduk of Babylonian .

The Egyptians also provide evidence of the practice. An ancient hieroglyphic image of an extended hand depicts the legend of a god passing his power onto a early descendant of Egyptian Pharaohs. The symbol also represents the verb, ‘to give.’

The practice of shaking hands spread north into the mediterranean. Greek stone carving from the 5th century BC depict two soldiers exchanging an unarmed hand and holding their spears with the other. Roman coins were even minted with the images of shaking hands. The handshake was a symbol of agreement and compromise.

Medieval Europeans built on the tradition. Since the possibility of danger or combat was a constant threat during the time period, a vigorous handshake was intended to dislodge any concealed armaments.

The modern handshake has evolved and spread internationally from European and western cultures to become the standard greeting and sign of good faith in the business world.

However its ubiquity, shaking hands is still not a common or simple act. Instead a handshake is a delicate balance of individuality, situation, and technique.

The Art of The Handshake

Donald Trump has strong opinions on handshakes and famously avoids it. On his blog he writes:

I think that the only thing better than a good handshake is no handshake at all. I've long said that handshakes are a bad idea because of all the germs people spread when they shake hands.

Notorious germaphobe and comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked on his television sitcom about the confusion over the proper technique and uncomfortable emotions given by a modern handshake:

Regardless of the views of an eccentric reality tv star and a standup comedian, it’s customary to shake hands at the beginning and end of a meeting such as a job interview or an introduction to a new client.

Customs for shaking hands vary around the world:

  • In Switzerland, it is expected to shake a woman’s hands first
  • Austrians will offer handshakes to children when meeting
  • Moroccans give one kiss on each cheek (to those of the same gender) at the same time as shaking hands
  • In Sudan, people who know each other give a good pat on the shoulder of the other before shaking hands
  • In China, a weak handshake is preferred, people shaking hands will often hold on to each other’s hands for an extended period after the initial handshake

Regardless of your location, a handshake translates a strong message. A handshake can be an intimate glimpse into an individual’s culture, personality, and send a nonverbal message of their ability and capabilities.

American and British researchers have tackled the science of shaking hands. Using psychological data and mathematical equations, scientists have affirmed many common conceptions and also discovered deeper insights.

The results can make a huge difference at your next interview, important meeting, or chance to meet The President of the United States.

The Power of a Firm Handshake

An innovative study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology examines the science of shaking hands and the link to a positive first impression.

Career gurus and business etiquette experts have long advocated the importance of shaking hands. However, there has been very little study into what factors and characteristic traits are communicated from the exchange.

The study states:

There’s a history of a lot of opinion on handshakes, and there’s a large amount of literature in etiquette books and in business literature about handshakes and its importance, but there was very little in scientific literature about handshakes.

The participants were rated in eight areas: grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigor, texture of skin, and eye contact.

The evaluators measured the quality of handshake related to interviewer hiring recommendations. The greater the quality level, the higher the hiring recommendation score.

These results strongly indicate the correlation of firm handshake and better hiring recommendation scores. The Journal reports that those with a firmer handshake were perceived to:

likely engage in other positive behaviors that reflect their ability to perform work successfully…It thus seems likely that interviewers subconsciously combine information obtained during the handshake with other information obtained during the interview to arrive at an evaluation of employment suitability that is a valuable predictor of future performance.

The findings substantiate long known edicts of a firm handshake and also bring to light the finer points of technique and method. Professor Geoffrey Beattie, head of psychological sciences at the University of Manchester conducted a poll around the UK that revealed that 1 in 5 hated shaking hands and were unsure of the proper technique.

If you are shy or extremely outgoing it is best to knowingly reveal that in your handshake. However having correct technique will help to ease your nerves and put your best foot forward.

Using his results Professor Beattie has tackled the science of a perfect handshake to highlight the key factors. Beattie’s technique is:

  1. Extend your right hand with a cool and dry palm
  2. Position your hand in a midpoint position between yourself and the other person
  3. Ensure fingers are under the receiving palm with a complete, firm grip
  4. Squeeze, like you are testing the ripeness of an orange
  5. Three shakes, with a medium level of vigour
  6. Hold for no longer than two to three seconds
  7. Keep eye contact throughout
  8. Accompany with a good natural smile
  9. Finish with a polite greeting like, “Great to meet you.”

Understanding the importance of a handshake and the impression that it leaves can help you to best express the image you wish to portray. Regardless proper technique will help to prepare you for the moment of truth and create a powerful influence during a first impression.


The King’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics Badge

The meeting between Elvis and Nixon was made by the President’s aid, and huge Elvis fan, Egil “Bud” Krogh.

Elvis arrived at the White House in a purple velvet suit accompanied with an impressive gold belt buckle and large pair of amber sunglasses. He carried a gift for President Nixon, taken directly from his Los Angeles estate — a display case mounted Colt .45 pistol.

Bud escorted Elvis to the President, but his gift was confiscated by Secret Service.

President Nixon and the King shook hands as White House photographer Ollie Atkins captured the moment. Elvis used this opportunity to make his plea for the Federal Narcotics badge

Elvis show off his police badges. He explained to Nixon that he felt the Beatles were “a real force for anti-American spirit” and that he had studied the latest drug culture and Communist brainwashing techniques.

President Nixon indicated his belief that drugs were a factor in the anti-American protests around the country. Elvis tells President Nixon, “I'm on your side.”

“Can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked Bud.

Bud said he could, and the President of The United States ordered the badge to be issued to Elvis.

Four years later President Nixon resigned from office and Elvis Presley would later die in 1977 of a drug overdose. The photograph of their meeting is a reminder of the decisions made and the powerful influence of a handshake.


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