Should I Shake Hands or Bow?

By Derek On September 12, 2011 Under Uncategorized


“Don’t gamble! Take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it ‘till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.” Will Rogers

When meeting clients it is critical to make a good first impression. The best way to do this is to be polite and mindful of etiquette. This extends from how and when to shake hands to business card usage. In fact, because it is important there is another post just dedicated to proper business card etiquette here.

No Dead Fish, Please

I live and work in Asia. I used to work in New York (“Wall Street”). In the US, when meeting a client you exchange business cards and give a firm handshake looking the person directly in the eye. To look away or give the limp, “dead fish” handshake implies lack of confidence or worse yet, shiftiness. Every time I give someone a handshake and get a dead fish in return, I immediately want to go wash my hands. Yuck.

When shaking hands you should have a firm grip – but not too firm. This isn’t a wrestling match. I always equalize the grip of the other person. If he has a bone crushing grip then mine is equally strong (just for self defense!). If the grip is light then so is mine. When a man meets a woman, a firm handshake is also due. Personally, I don’t like women that have bone crushing handshakes. It is unnatural and tells me they have something to prove and are unsure of themselves. Guys that have bone crushing handshakes are clods, pure and simple.

A Tip for Clammy Hands

What is worse than a too-hard or too-soft handshake is a wet, clammy hand. Nobody likes those. However, when you are in a meeting room and waiting for an important client to enter, maybe someone you have never met before, nervousness or anxiety kicks in and your hands may naturally be a little clammy. I always keep a few tissues in my pocket and if needed, I squeeze those before I extend my now dry hand to greet the client.

It’s Different in Asia

If you are meeting an Asian client, by that I particularly mean someone from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and SE Asia), you will soon discover the handshake etiquette is very different. Handshakes are a western invention and one Asian cultures have adopted, but not wholeheartedly. The handshakes in Asia are always soft (what we would call “limp”) and they frequently last a long time (hey, let GO of my hand!). Do not greet an Asian person with a really firm handshake. There is no need.

They don’t like it. Again, equalizing the pressure is the best policy. Unless they have studied and worked abroad for a long time, the hand they are extending to you is likely to have almost no pressure in the grip. They may not look you directly in the eye the whole time either as that signals a challenge. This is just about the opposite of the advice I just gave at the beginning of this post but holds true out here.

Bow Wow

What about bowing? Bowing is another can of worms. Generally, if you are a westerner and you meet an Asian, they are expecting a bone crushing handshake (you already know not to do that). If you are in New York meeting them, they are 100% expecting a handshake. If you are in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or China, handshakes are the norm, so don’t sweat it. Nobody bows there when greeting. However, in Japan and Korea it is different, yet again.

Korean Handshake

Korean’s shake hands in a very particular way. Extend your right hand and place your left palm under your right elbow keeping it there as you shake. Give a slight bow while all this is going on as well. The other (Korean) person will do this naturally.

Even Koreans who have been in the US or Europe for years still have trouble NOT doing this. Watch. The idea behind the left hand supporting the other arm is to show respect – much like using two hands to give and receive an object. It supposedly comes from the old days when everyone wore long sleeved robes, or Hanbok, and you needed to hold the sleeve back with one hand to extend the other.

Japan, It’s Complicated

I won’t get in to how to bow correctly with the Japanese. They have entire books on that. Suffice to say, there are three basic bows: what I call the 20 degree, the 45 degree and the full 90. The trick is knowing when to use which one. That takes years and you can only learn it by living in Japan with Japanese people. When in doubt, just do what the person in front of you is doing. If he is giving you a 45 degree bow you can do the same.

One tip here:

Almost all westerners can “ape” a bow but what makes them look (and feel) really awkward is what to do with their hands. Men bow by extending their arms straight down their sides, palms open and facing in so they are against the outside of their thighs.A woman will bow with her hands crossed on her lap, like soccer players do during a penalty kick. Either way, keep your hands in the same position as you bow. You can finish off with a handshake as well. If you are a westerner, remember, they are expecting a handshake, anyway.

Remembering and practicing the above will always put the other party at ease and make you look good. And looking good is damned important in business and in life.

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