My high school English teacher told us our entire grade was based on a handshake.
“I don’t care how much you participate or how well you write. Give a firm handshake or you fail,” he advised early on in a booming voice. We all assumed that he was joking, but no one was too sure.
“Shake my hand. Don’t cut off my circulation, but give it some grip. Look me in the eye. Smile. Shake—not too long! Just enough to assert your presence.”
In the hallways, students practiced hand-shaking as if we were 17-year-old CEOs.
The final day of class was judgement day. One at a time, we were called to the front of the room to hand in our English portfolios with the left hand and shake with the right. The offering of our right hands, we knew, was for the true evaluation.
“Yes, a confident yet understated shake. Pass,” he’d say.
“Too much arm action. Fail.”
I don’t remember the specifics of the course (I can’t name a single book we read), but the threat of failure was enough to ensure that I’d always have a strong handshake.
At that time, I had no way of knowing how often I would end up shaking hands. It seemed like a nice novelty from an untraditional teacher, but I wouldn’t have guessed how useful I would find the skill, years later.
I am now fortunate to meet job candidates on a daily basis. I deal with all kinds of people looking for all kinds of jobs, from college seniors applying for research associate roles to seasoned professionals with years of experience. But no matter the age or experience of a new acquaintance, the moment of the handshake sets the tone. It turns out that a handshake is a great equalizer between strangers.
Of course, the quality of the shake doesn’t determine any aspect of a candidacy, but what a great first impression a firm yet balanced handshake can make.
My English teacher would be proud.
Anna Lippe works as a recruiting specialist in the District and writes on the side. Her high school English experience came at the Park School in Baltimore, and she currently lives in Arlington.