I recently read an article on how people should shake hands in business interactions to appear assertive and in control. To me, there's an irony in writings like these, because the authors learn what they teach by observing people who aren't self-conscious about their body language. In this article, I suggest that coming to terms with that self-consciousness--not imitating others' body language--is a better way to make a good impression.
Recently, I read an interesting article about how people are supposed to shake hands in business interactions. According to the article, when you're shaking hands with someone—unless they're your superior at work—you should turn your palm down and position your hand above theirs. This is supposed to suggest that you are the dominant person in the interaction, and subtly influence the other person to do what you want. This, we're told, is the way powerful executives shake hands with people they meet—implying that, if you want the money and power they have, you should adopt their handshake.
To me, there's an irony in writings on how to shake hands to make the right impression, and other teachings about how to impress people with assertive, confident or attractive body language. The irony is that these authors learn about the body language they teach by studying the behavior of people who naturally move their bodies that way.
For instance, the executives referenced in the article I read don't shake hands the way they do because they read an article or took a course on handshakes. They do it without thinking or being self-conscious about it. The way they shake hands, and other aspects of their body language, are natural expressions of who they are. To them, their handshake is completely comfortable, and the possibility that they're shaking hands “wrongly” doesn't even occur to them.
By contrast, if you told someone who'd never before used the “dominant” or “palm-down” handshake to start using it, I'll bet they would be completely uncomfortable. Every time they met someone, they'd have to focus their attention on their handshake to make sure they got it right. Being this anxious about how you're coming across isn't very pleasant, and makes you unlikely to project confidence and “dominance” to others.
Some people might read this and say “but I'm self-conscious about how I move my body all the time anyway. Since that's how I am, I might as well learn body language that impresses people.” Others might say “but if you work on your handshake long enough, you'll stop being uncomfortable doing it. It's like developing any other skill.” A few years ago, I would have voiced the same objections.
Eventually, however, my perspective on this issue shifted. If researchers on body language learn the “right” ways to move one's body by watching people who aren't self-conscious about how they move, maybe the easiest way to make a positive impression is actually to get rid of your self-consciousness. Perhaps the very reason powerful executives make a good impression, and are successful in business, is their lack of anxiety and inhibition—not the specifics of how they shake hands or other aspects of their body language. In other words, the best way to present yourself effectively is to stop agonizing over how you're presenting yourself. This seems like a lot less work, and more enjoyable, than studying other people's movements and trying to imitate them.
But how do you become less self-conscious? I could go on for many pages about this question. However, I'll start by saying that, in my experience, one of the most effective methods is to seriously explore the reasons your self-consciousness exists. What impression do you feel you need your body language to convey to people? When did you decide that the way you normally move your body isn't good enough? What are you afraid would happen if you didn't adopt the “right” body language? What would people think of you?
Understanding why you have an insecurity is often the key to freeing yourself from it. Insecurities about how we move our bodies, and more generally about how we appear to people, tend to arise from a felt need to defend ourselves against others. Perhaps we're afraid others will ridicule, ignore, attack, or harm us in some other way. We have to make our bodies look “right,” we believe, to prevent these things from happening. These fears tend to develop in our childhoods, when we're at our most vulnerable, but unfortunately they can stick with us as we mature.
When you bring your full attention to your fears about the way you're coming across, you're likely to discover that many of those fears are obsolete. They arose out of conditions of your childhood environment that no longer exist today. The people you were afraid would criticize, exclude or attack you can't hurt you anymore. When you have this realization, you feel freer to drop your insecurities—your defense mechanisms—and move through the world in a way that feels right to you.