Handshakes and body language

Shaking hands

I’ve been thinking about handshakes and body language recently; it got me thinking about how we present ourselves in our professional lives. It is vital that mentors have insights into how they present themselves, and I argue here that they need to approach their relationship with a mentee differently than with other business colleagues.

The reason I have been so preoccupied with handshakes is that I have lived with hand eczema for many years. I actually dread meeting anyone for the first time, be it in a professional or social situation. My hands can be very sore most of the time. If not sore, they are excruciatingly sensitive to touch. Hence, I tend to wear gloves for all occasions. For me, shaking hands can be pretty uncomfortable at all levels – from physical discomfort to the social anxiety involved in so directly drawing attention to my gloves.


According to some sources, the etiquette for handshakes when wearing gloves is that ‘ladies’ can keep them on, but men ought to remove theirs (see ‘The Royal Butler‘ and ‘Manly manners’).  There are plenty of other courtesies people can exercise when shaking hands without gloves, such as making sure your hands are clean, not too sweaty, and that your grip is not too loose or too tight. Knowing that cold and flu viruses, as well as bacteria, can spread by shaking hands has led some trendsetters to promote ‘fist pumps’ as an alternative.

So, what does this have to do with mentoring? One of the roles of a mentor is to help their mentee socialise into their profession, the company and the workplace. Mentors can do this partly by role modelling and partly by supplying or signposting information and advice.

Greeting norms

Demystifying the ‘greeting norms’ can be a good place to start. How do greetings differ in formal business meetings, when meeting customers or service users, or in interactions with close colleagues? When do people shake hands and who should initiate the handshake? What kind of handshake is commonly used – do people also touch the arm or shoulder, for instance? Do some colleagues engage in a ‘hug and kiss’ greeting? There’s probably a range of greeting styles where you work. It is likely that you rarely talk about greeting norms, but it could be very useful for your mentee if you do.

Introduce your mentee

Introducing your mentee can also help them to socialise into their roles. A thoughtful introduction can help to validate your mentee’s presence and initiate them into your professional circles. Giving your mentee space to speak in professional and workplace conversations is a good idea as well if they are still developing in their confidence. Another helpful tactic is to provide some background information beforehand about the people they are going to meet.

Concealing insecurities?

You have probably learnt how to perfect your body language so that you can project yourself favourably in professional situations. By adjusting your voice, posture and your hand gestures, you can convey an air of both competence and confidence. Your mentee probably looks at you and wonders if they will ever be so confident. For many people, though, body language is a tool for concealing insecurities. Having some insight into these acts of concealment can be very helpful for people who are starting out in a profession.

Consider the times when you feel nervous going into an important meeting. Perhaps you focus on sitting in a relaxed but upright posture, and arrive armed with notes of the points you want to make. Compare this with a time when it is crucial that you appear trustworthy to a colleague or client. You might ensure that you make eye contact, and that you show you are listening to them carefully. It may be appropriate to touch the person. If you are skilful in your utilisation of body language, it is likely to become invisible. People, including your mentee, will only notice your intended message. But what a fantastic learning experience they would have if you revealed your inner feelings and the work you do in managing these.

Think about whether you can reveal your professional use of body language to your mentees. They may thank you for it.

Further reading




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