The Degeneration of the Handshake, and Why It Matters to You

Is the handshake devolving? Is there a business opportunity here for those paying attention? Just maybe — on both accounts.

The handshake originated as a sign of mistrust. The modern handshake is said to be traceable to medieval knights who physically shook the hand up and down to shake loose any weapons. But in the centuries that followed it turned into a sign of trust and friendship, and was also regularly used as congratulations for promotions, weddings, or winning something. But is all that changing?

The rise of the impersonal greeting.
Since the 1960s I’ve watched an evolution, or maybe devolution of the handshake — not sure. Each new “style” seems less and less personal. In the 60s I saw clever new ways to touch hands and fingers before or after the handshake. Then it became a quick hand slap with no clasping, and sometimes some clever finger snapping while not touching. Then came the elbow shake — no hands involved. It didn’t last long. Then the high-five took over and has evolved into a victory slap of some sort. (There was a low-five for a while, but it took too much energy.)

More recently athletes developed the chest bump, which requires no involvement from the hands or even the arms. Those of us walking around on the streets couldn’t get the timing right, so we resorted to the fist bump, which even the president uses a lot. Now greetings have become so impersonal that you see athletes jumping to touch back-to-back — you don’t even have to look at each other. (Do not try this on the subway with a stranger — again, timing is very important.)

Does it mean anything or say anything about where we are as a culture? Maybe; maybe not. Could be that it’s just a way to relieve boredom with the way things have always been done. But there might be a warning in it for us businesspeople. I’m not sure where it will go from here, maybe to a version of greeting that requires no touching at all. Oh, wait a minute, I think we call that “the internet.”

The most impersonal handshake — digital.
I run across people all the time on the internet who are convinced they don’t have to be human first; that if they make a data contact, that’s enough.

I connect with almost every real human who asks to follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Maybe I shouldn’t, but it seems friendly, and we might actually get to know each other. I’ve got great relationships on a number of continents from becoming interested in what others do on the Web.

Friendly person — not.
But almost every day now I get “Sales Guy” trying to contact me (not connect — that would be too personal), by disguising himself as “Friendly Person.” Today I accepted an invite on LinkedIn, and within a few minutes I got this message, which is similar to ones I get every day:

“Thank you for connecting with me on LinkedIn. When would be a good time to hop on the phone and discuss the potential business opportunities between our two companies?”

To which I replied:

“After we build a relationship, which doesn’t seem likely.”

What makes people think they can say hello and then start selling me something? If you meet a person in a bar and ask them to marry you right there, what are the odds they’ll accept? (If they do, you deserve each other.) Relationships take time to develop. The more impersonal your connection with me, the less likely I am to buy anything.

Hugging, not bugging.
Which brings me to the point of this rant. As an entrepreneur who’s started and built ten businesses, I’ve found the following axiom works really well to build your business:

The closer you get to a hug, the more likely you are to sell something.

Please don’t digitally shake hands with me from 1,000 miles away and expect to sell something because you’ve found a door to my computer. Which brings me to the second axiom that seems to work in the emerging world of the Participation Age:

Serve, don’t sell.

Meet me where I am, not where you are.
If you manage to find a door to my computer, your first interaction should be to figure out how you can be interested in me and what I’m doing, and how you can serve me. Hint: It almost always has nothing to do with your stupid product.

Simple rules: Don’t contact people, connect with them. Don’t sell them, serve them. Build a relationship by meeting them where they are at, not where you want them to be. Someday, if you do, they might actually need one of your widgets and come running to you to buy it, because you are their friend.

Take the long, patient road to my wallet that goes through my heart. We’ll all be happier.

(Feel free to refer people to this article who don’t get it — glad to explain it to them.)

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