Donald Trump's unusual greetings shed light on the art of the handshake


Published on February 14, 2017

TORONTO — When is a handshake more than a handshake? Any time it involves the unpredictable U.S. President Donald Trump, who has turned the simple social convention into a highly analyzed and debated spectator sport.

A handful of odd greetings, including a relatively tame one with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, has experts and political junkies alike reading into the significance and meaning — whether warranted or not — of Trump's every minute gesture and expression.

Etiquette maven Leanne Pepper admits to being stunned by Trump's aggressive handshake style, which often includes yanking his partner sharply towards himself and holding for several beats longer than expected.

She takes heart in the scrutiny he seems to have awakened in the general public, hoping that signals a return to basic civil customs.

"People are waking up to how important the social graces are because it's one of those things that aren't being taught anymore — at home, or in the upbringing, or schools," says Pepper, a protocol consultant and image coach in Toronto.

"Hand-shaking is that first contact that you have with another person and people judge you on that handshake — if it's a wet, limp handshake or if it's that bone-crushing (handshake). You've got to be somewhat firm but not bone-crushing."

Trump has quickly developed a reputation for an unusually aggressive style that has been interpreted by some as a power-play designed to unnerve the recipient. This has been obvious in meetings with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Canada's prime minister clearly prepared for this first contact with Trump, says body language expert Mark Bowden, who concludes that Trudeau more than held his own.

Pressing the flesh can be fraught with subtext and subtle signals, especially when cameras are present, says the Toronto strategist and image consultant, whose clients have included former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The power struggle between media-savvy leaders begins with which side they are standing on — it's all about how the photo looks, says Bowden.

"Whoever's on the left side shaking hands gets the bigger arm, a stronger arm, they get a bigger, stronger look. So you've got to know, if you're coming in from the right for a handshake, you've got to have the counter-measure to make your arm look big and strong," says Bowden, president of the consulting firm Truth Plane.

"And the counter-measure is: you hold your arm out straight so that the photograph taken will always be of you having the biggest arm, the biggest-looking arm."

A "normal" handshake should be welcoming and brief, says Pepper, noting "it's about making that person feel welcomed."

"It's straight up and down, web to web, somewhat firm, not the bone-crushing handshake, and you're about at arms-length. And two to three shakes down from the elbow is basically all you're needing to do," she says.

Much attention has centred on a viral photo from inside the Oval Office, when Trump extended his hand to Trudeau. He appears to sneer as he looks down at Trump's open palm, a split-second glance that is imperceptible in video of the same encounter.

New York-based image expert Sylvie Di Giusto dismisses it as a moment too brief and lacking in context to hold any meaning.

But Toronto-based image expert Pat Stonehouse argues that photographs may have captured a micro-expression from Trudeau — an involuntary facial expression of a genuine emotion. And aside from what his asymmetrical smile suggests, if he trusted Trump he would be returning the gaze, and not looking at Trump's hand.

"Trudeau was thinking something because his eyes got wider and there was a look down and there was the lip ... his lip all of a sudden tightened," says Stonehouse, of the firm Advancing with Style.

What follows is a relatively magnanimous handshake in which Trump literally allows Trudeau the upper hand as they clasp.

Body language in general is a display of power, or a response to a display of power, conscious or unconscious, Bowden notes.

A bad handshake can definitely set a meeting's tone, and Trump the deal-maker almost certainly knows that.

"Psychologically, it can unnerve somebody enough that they're destabilized and they might not perform as well as they'd want to," says Bowden.

"We can feel more confident and we know that when we feel more confident we think, and maybe we do, get a better deal."

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press