It’s Foolish to Shake Hands on a Deal

handshakecomic-vby Alan Louis, PhD in Commerce

The Old-Fashioned Handshake

When it comes to conveying goodwill and instilling confidence, the old-fashioned handshake is often used. The gesture can reinforce positive impressions and even undo bad ones. Psychologists have found that a handshake can not only enhance the positive effect toward a favourable interaction, but it can also diminish the impact of a negative impression.

I think any reader would agree that handshakes can enhance one’s social image. Richard ‘The Old Man’ Harrison in the popular TV reality series, Pawn Stars (not the one you are thinking of), based on the famous Las Vegas pawn broker shop, shows how the old style ‘handshake’ is correctly applied and says that “handshaking is a universal type of communication which says ‘deal done’ at the end of every agreement.”

He goes on to say that “when you cut a deal, it is customary to handshake.” He however slips in something interesting (although he did not realize the significance of what he was saying at the time) in a recent interview on the handshake when he said, “Back in the Roman days the handshake was used more as a ‘signal of power’ than now.”

Signal of Power

Unfortunately, too many people use handshakes as flattery in order to weaken your resolve, and manipulate you to believe there may be true friendship, faith and trust in the relationship.

Forces in commerce understand this hidden language and ‘signal of power’ very well and use it as a manipulative tool to disarm you. While my father is my ‘Old Man’ (sorry Dad, but you look very young), like most of the ‘Old Men’ in this world, he loved the handshake, taught it to his five sons and so we came to embrace this gesture of goodwill.

There are many good lessons to be learnt from the handshake, but I no longer embrace it. This is so because my brutal experience has shown me that in many cases over my long career, I have observed that the handshake is often contorted, changing its original, innocent gesture into a negative one, to gain competitive advantage and make you feel guilty that you somehow have not lived up to your end of the bargain.

Its Roman Origins

In Roman times, the handshake was an arm clasp, with each man clasping just below the elbow of the other. This gesture provided a better opportunity to feel for daggers hidden in sleeves. Medieval knights took further precautions by adding a shake to the clasp to dislodge any hidden weapons, and thus the handshake was born.

I agree with the positive effect of a handshake on social evaluation but I strongly urge people in the marketplace to use the goodwill gesture with maximum caution and clasp your hand just below the elbow of certain individuals (you will need to make this guess for yourself) to provide you with the best opportunity to “feel for daggers hidden in sleeves.”

The Perfect Handshake Equation

To seal more car deals, Chevrolet UK looked to arm its sales force with the perfect weapon of confidence: an unstoppable handshake. The challenge, intended only to be humorous for marketing purposes, set off the imagination of writer Professor Geoffrey Beattie, former Head of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester. After much reflection, Professor Beattie created an equation based on what he called PH – the Perfect Handshake (Article posted on io9.com by Joseph Calamia: ‘Danger! Car Dealers Now in Possession of “Perfect Handshake” Equation’, Sept 2010 – original press release from Chevy).

PH = √ (e^2 + ve^2)(d^2) + (cg + dr)^2 + π{(4< s >^2)(4^2)}^2 + (vi + t + te)^2 + {(4^2 )(4^2)}^2

The variables are too numerous and complicated to list here (there are about sixty or so) but include an exhaustive list of factors such as eye contact, completeness of grip, as well as dryness and temperature of hands. Apart from the touch of fun, it serves to demonstrate that there is far more to a handshake than most people think.

The Handshake Daggers

There is a reason that the ‘handcuff and dagger’ skin tattoo is so commonly used. Contracts are expensive, long-winded documents that few understand and besides people generally feel handcuffed by them.

So while expensive and long-winded documents scare many people away from using written contracts, they also know deep down that the alternative ‘handshake’ doesn’t afford them the protection they really need. If you’re wearing handcuffs, there’s no doubt that the other party is in charge. So, you have been forced into a situation in which you are not comfortable and you feel restricted and resentful. On the other hand, when relying on a handshake, while you may trust the other party, there is always that nagging doubt that your recollection of what was agreed upon might not be the same as theirs, or that they may expect too much of you. Remember also that two honest people, with the absolute best of intentions, can easily misunderstand each other and disagree.

Although oral contracts (as a result of a handshake) can be as binding as written contracts, if your deal goes south as a result of an oral contract, you will start feeling like Sylvester with Tweety Bird. That’s why too many people use the ‘handshake’ technique to their advantage, because their Tweety Bird always wins in the end.

Whether you decide to use the handshake or rely on a written contract, the wise words of King David as found in Psalm 25:20-21 should be front of mind: “Keep my soul, and deliver me; let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, For I wait for You.”

A Thought worth pondering: If you decide to shake hands on a deal, you will look honourable for a day, but may look bad for the rest of the year.

AlanlouisPicAbout the Author: Dr Alan Louis is a third generation entrepreneur in a family with a 100-year business history. He devoted his life to Christianity since the age of 7. He was awarded a PhD in Commerce, is an Ironman Triathlete Gold medallist and was inducted in the IBC Hall of Fame for entrepreneurship. Internationally he has served on more than 100 private corporate boards, and has experienced the ups and downs of commerce for 3 decades.

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11 Responses to It’s Foolish to Shake Hands on a Deal

  1. Michael says:

    This was one of the most thought provoking articles I’ve read in a while so bravo, Alan! I often wondered about the hidden meaning behind a handshake and I guess it’s ultimately based on the two people involved. If these people are honest and look for the best interest of the other person as much as their own, everything is fine. But when at least one of the two people have a hidden agenda, or are using the handshake as a mean of controlling negotiations, then the deal shouldn’t go through. But how can you know for sure when this is happening?

    • Language of Commerce says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Michael. My father taught the values of the handshake to his 5 boys, but I saw how it hurt him. In most both parties are well-meaning when shaking, BUT the one party was agreeing to a light blue car whereas the other a dark blue one. Small differences create massive problems, in summary, be very weary when shaking hands.

      • Michael says:

        I agree: it’s the little things that often create the biggest of disputes between two people. That’s why, whenever I buy something like a car or something else (more substantial), I always ask a lot of questions. Asking questions helps me figure out what the other person is selling and what he is trying to hide. If I ask enough questions, I will usually figure things out on my own and if he is trying to trick me I will know. This also comes down to knowing a bit about body language as you can then spot if someone is lying to you.

  2. Beth says:

    I have never thought on handshakes like this but it makes sense. It makes complete sense! It is similar to being a man of your word. You can say something and have someone take your word for it, but if you don’t follow through, you end up hurting the both of you. So many people take advantage of each other in this world and it is not wise to be without verbal and written agreements.

  3. Frank Hansen says:

    I must say that this article was very enlightening to read. I was not aware of the history of the handshake. However, I am aware that in today’s market (regardless of type) it would not fly for a minute. Thanks for sharing the thoughts on this.

  4. Alberta says:

    Nice opening image ! Those Romans weren’t kidding with the hidden daggers, were they? I actually don’t give handshakes that much importance. Why? Because in our current society, those are just for show, people mainly do them because that’s how it has always been done. It’s much more important to get to know the other person and see whether or not you can trust them. I hate loud mouth sellers that try to get you to buy by forcing you into it. I like a seller that knows how to present his merchandise that shows me what I am going to get out of this and doesn’t just think of himself.

  5. Trevor Frank says:

    Awesome equation! There are some old school businessman that might work a deal like this, today, but only on a personal level. Any business that is going to get contracts closed with a handshake is not going to be in business very long.

  6. HistoryFreak says:

    Love the history lesson! Great post to read. I am going to share this with my LinkedIn connections and see what they have to say about it!

  7. Robert N says:

    I never really considered that people would genuinely make serious business agreements over a handshake. I always believed that people would have the common sense to shake hands as a symbolisation of agreeing to a written contract. But still with the written contract having been completed. This is truly an eye-opener!

  8. Pauline V. says:

    I’ve experienced the hardship that both parties feel when people fall short of an agreement. For me, it shows that not only is the person you are dealing with unreliable but you too have shown that you cannot be trusted or held to your word. If you do not have your word, what do you really have to offer to the marketplace? I have finally learned my lesson, and make a point to stick to my promises as much as possible, and the benefits of doing so are abundant. The increased amount of clients I’ve generated aside, I feel better in my own skin as a businesswoman.

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