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Greetings, handshakes: territory in body language



Virginie Graziani

Talent Management & Synergologist

20 April 2023

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Our body speaks without us knowing it, sometimes long before we express ourselves in words. This is the case when we enter a room and/or face an interlocutor. The way we greet says a lot about us. Our handshake reveals our ability to reach out to others. Indeed, our greetings express the respect we have for the person we are talking to and our willingness to share the moment. In our gestures, these non-verbal clues allow us to understand our body language.


Highly ritualised greetings


Greeting our interlocutor is considered a simple act. However, the situations are part of a complex ritual. Indeed, the simple act of “saying hello” has a real meaning and allows us to exchange information about the respective identities of each individual. Also, we express ourselves with both verbal and non-verbal language when we shake hands, for example.

In addition, respect for the conventions of a social group is unconsciously important. For example, in a company, a person who does not say hello to others runs the risk of being extremely badly seen, or even completely rejected by others. Respecting the “codes” therefore allows you to adapt your language to your environment.

Eye contact is essential when greeting people, as it allows them to recognise the presence of the other person. They act as an introduction before being allowed to start a conversation. Sometimes, greetings take on an obligatory leading role before starting a communication process. It is also a moment that serves as a reference in the discussion. Indeed, the first moments of an exchange allow us to take the temperature by noticing the slightest dissonant facial expression or mimicry.

Finally, the way we greet him or her gives a hierarchical and/or emotional status to the speaker. In fact, the way two people greet each other tells us a lot. An obvious example is the Japanese greeting where the degree of bowing is an indicator of the hierarchical position of each speaker. All these body cues help us to understand verbal expressions such as intonation or vocal rhythm.



(A)symmetrical greetings


We distinguish two phases in our greetings. The approach phase is triggered by the recognition of the individuals. It can be more or less long depending on the distance and the enthusiasm to join the interlocutor. A slight pause in the body will prepare the person for the greeting and perhaps for a handshake (outside Covid). The posture and the range of gestures that are used give us information about the verbal communication that is about to take place.

During the actual meeting phase, the interlocutors will actually say “hello” to each other with the gesture that accompanies the word: nod, handshake, kiss or more if affinity (when the health context allows it). The meeting allows us to situate the relationship between the two individuals. When we are actors, it defines the boundaries between others and ourselves.

The handshake reveals many subtleties. Also, it appears symmetrical to the untrained eye. However, appearances are deceiving. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, it allows you to position yourself in front of him. It expresses the intention to exchange and engage together. Indeed, this first contact means an intrusion into our personal, even intimate sphere. This is why it is not trivial and far from symmetrical, even if we are not aware of it.

At the moment of shaking hands, six zones are to be scrutinised and decoded. Also, the observation and analysis of the handshake reveal our relationship with our interlocutor, our level of self-confidence, as well as the attention paid to the other. Also, unconsciously we will adapt our verbal and non-verbal language in response to the posture and gestures of our speaker who greets us. Thus, we may want to impose ourselves as much as the other person or, on the contrary, try to make ourselves forgotten.


The handshake in our greeting


Respecting the rules of proxemics, the handshake reveals our ability and willingness to share our territory. Thus, the breakdown of a handshake gives precise indications of an individual’s self-confidence, as well as their willingness to engage in a genuine relationship. As a result, it gives us clues about the verbal communication that will follow.

Our greetings are also a sign of an individual’s respect for the other person and their willingness to share the moment. Also, a person’s openness to the outside world tells us how the individual perceives the outside world: whether he or she is trusting or distrustful. The decoding of greetings promotes a deeper understanding of the upcoming exchange. This in turn allows the desired level of communication to be adapted.

When shaking hands, elements of our posture reflect our ability to handle the emotional intensity of a proximity. This indicates the extent to which we accept the presence of the other person in our space, reflecting our willingness to build or avoid contact. Learning to decipher greetings increases our ability to perceive, understand and influence our emotions and those of others.

Variations in the tilt and orientation of our torso indicate our desire to reach out to the other person, as well as our ability to expose ourselves to the other person. Thus, our positioning indicates the nature of the relationship: affective, friendly, dominant, aggressive, evasive and/or protective.

In conclusion, the greeting and the handshake is an essential moment in our private and professional social interactions. This communication, which is primarily bodily, reinforces the verbal speech to come and can even predict its nature. Indeed, we have all seen how much we have missed the handshake or kiss since the beginning of this unprecedented health crisis. However, the non-verbal cues are still there on the face. And the mask does not fully constrain our emotional intelligence and our ability to decipher the other and ourselves.


The secrets of body language


Mistakes in recruitment, management and negotiation are costly. On a daily basis, your colleagues, managers, peers and leaders are also trying to decipher your intentions and emotions through your verbal and non-verbal cues. Know how you are perceived by your professional environment, whether it is at the first meeting or every time you arrive in a colleague’s office.

Do you want to stop misjudging an individual? Do you need to better identify risks in others? You’ve come to the right place.

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