Why All the Hullabaloo Over Handshakes? They Matter

The infamous handshake between U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the U.S. ambassador's residence, on the sidelines of the NATO summit, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

When Donald Trump first met French President Emmanuel Macron in May at a meeting of world leaders in Europe, what should have been a harmless and largely forgettable social ritual instead spurred a superstorm of scrutiny and silliness.

We are talking about The Handshake That Shook the World. The Tussle in Brussels.

Many of us will overanalyze anything. Politics. Relationships. A gathering storm. A wrestling match. And if there's something that incorporates all of that?

Hold the presses. That one gets our undivided attention.

But an innocent handshake? Maybe we're making too much of this?

"I don't think so. I actually don't," says Frank Bernieri, a psychologist at Oregon State University who has studied the art and psychology behind handshakes. "I'm dismissive of a lot of things. [But] I would want my heads of states and politicians to be able to interact effectively. When you get two such powerful leaders together, and they're playing this game of 'Who lets go first' ... that makes me feel uncomfortable.

"If we can't come to terms on a handshake, how are we going to [for example] sign this trade agreement?"

How It's Supposed to Work

A public meeting of two heads of state is almost always carefully choreographed. It's supposed to convey a mutual respect, a get-together of two equals on common and even ground. The public handshake is a standard part of that.

The Macron-Trump handshake was anything but.

"The research I've done in the lab, and observations that we've made, seem to indicate that the best handshakes ... have this mutual aspect to them," Bernieri says. "A coordination, a synchronicity, a similarity."

In a "good" handshake, hands are supposed to approach at the same speed. They meet at the same level and at the same distance from the body. The hands slip seamlessly into each other, stopping at the web between the index finger and the thumb. There's a squeeze, equal in strength and duration from each party.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump shake hands before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 10, 2017. Based on this snapshot, it's hard to tell that anything strange is going down with the Abe-Trump handshake.

But Trump — who has gone off the handshaking rails, too, with Canada's Justin Trudeau and Japan's Shinzo Abe, for two — grabs and pulls his partner toward him, whether it's a Supreme Court justice or a head of state. He sometimes holds on too long. He generally makes the entire ritual uncomfortable. That is, when he's not ignoring it altogether (as he did with Germany's Angela Merkel).

It's hardly statesmanlike. It's completely un-politicianlike.

And that's OK to many who would point out that being un-politicianlike was a major reason he was elected in the first place.

The motivation behind Trump's handshake strategy seems simple enough.

"What I suspect is happening is President Trump is communicating that he is a man to be reckoned with, and he's got all the chips," Bernieri says. "I think he's up front with that."

Yes, Handshakes Matter

The handshake is a fascinating social interaction that has not been, Bernieri says, studied nearly enough. But the few studies out there agree that the handshake is not trivial. A handshake, scientifically and socially speaking, means something.

The studies, summarized in a 2011 paper done by Bernieri and OSU colleague Kristen Petty, find that handshakes:

  • Can reveal personality.
  • Can impact first impressions.
  • Can influence outcomes, like job interviews.

And the thing is, everybody knows all this. So the Trump-Macron gripoff in Brussels prompted endless analysis around the world and a perhaps startling revelation from one of the participants that all that scrutiny was indeed merited.

"It's not innocent," Macron told a French newspaper. "We must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones ..."

After all the analysis, some declared Macron the winner of The Handshake. He offered at least as strong a grip as Trump, and perhaps more. He stuck with Trump. In fact, those close-ups even seemed to show that Trump attempted to break the grip first.

Macron more than held his own later when they met again at NATO headquarters, though more tugging and pulling was evident. Macron even left Trump temporarily waiting while he shook hands and embraced other world leaders first.

This elaborate dance of the handshake, to many observers all over the world, had another side. Trump v. Macron was, in its strange, testosterone-laced, power-trippy way, funny. Seeing two world leaders mangling such a common social gesture, on such a public stage, was ridiculous.

And now, every time Trump reaches out (and it's true of Macron, too, who recently greeted Russia's Vladimir Putin in a handshake timed by the media), we'll all be watching.

"Other people are aware of this. It is so blatant that they are, in a sense, forming strategies to combat this," Bernieri says. "We can only hope this war escalates, because that would be hilarious."