Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Handshake and the Name

Shaking hands for the first time and picking up the name of the other person is harder than you might think. Most of us only hear our own name and afterwards regret that we didn't listen to learn the other person's name while we had the chance.

When we meet people for the first time in a business setting we usually shake hands. We also state our name and look each other in the eye. It's something that many of us do every single day.

Why would such a topic interest me? Well, there's a strange phenomenon in this cultural practice - a weakness that actually the majority of professionals "suffer from". Believe it or not, my stats indicate that approximately 5 or 6 out of 10 don't hear and/or remember the name of the person they greet in this way. Why? Isn't the name or identity the single one objective of such a traditional way to greet? I don't think it is. We may believe it is, but in reality, shaking hands has a completely different purpose.

Possible Reasons Why
I've actually thought about "the failed handshake" for quite some time. It's an interesting and telling tendency. I've mapped out a list of possible reasons for why this is the case. Maybe it's because:

  • meeting new people puts a little scare in us and we protect ourselves by being very careful and aware of what we say and do...
  • ...and thus we become much more focused on ourselves than on others the moment we leave our comfort zone.
  • stating each other's name comes so close in time that we're simply not listening the first few seconds before and after we speak.
  • finding the hand and looking the person in the eye takes too much of our attention...
  • ...and thus picking up the name almost becomes "multitasking" and too much for us.
  • we tend to focus on visuals in the beginning looking for facial expressions, clothing and looks, sound and scent.
  • we often greet more than one person at a time and get names mixed up. Most of the people I've spoken with about this say they simply give up by not even trying when there's more than three new people in the room.
  • we don't really care or don't really understand the importance of a name.
  • we hear the name, but quickly forget as the conversation moves into preliminaries (our mind is focused on what to talk about to break the ice).
  • simply lack of routine and/or an unconscious working style.

So What?
What is there to be done about this problem?

Simply being aware of our tendency to not listen and instantly remember a name makes a huge difference. Just focus on the name next time you shake hands with someone. Don't worry about appearances, what to say, how to shake hands or anything else. It will be OK. What's important is to hear and remember that name!


  1. So true's even embarrassing ;) Very good you raise this issue! Gonna train myself to get better at this!!

  2. So true, so true. Met 30 people today for the first time, all of them will be important for me in the future -and I'll promise you I tried! Don't bet on the success...
    But one funny episode: We were put in teams, and I was sitting next to a man I didn't shake hands with in the beginning. But the guy next to him was one of the few I proudly could ask "-and you were Lasse, weren't you?". Upon which he replied: "What wrong did I do since you remebered?"

  3. Wauw! I'm impressed. And doesn't it feel great to honor someone with their own name?!

  4. Vidar, you raise an important topic. Many people have a limiting belief that they're not good at remembering names, therefor they don't even bother to try. I had that belief until last fall, when I decided to do something about it. My goal was to become really good at it, and all of a sudden I was on a mission! A paradigme shift occured - I started to focus on the other person when meeting someone, and repeated their name before saying mine. The shift in focus made a huge difference. As a curiosity, I can mention that a friend of mine spent a whole evening introducing himself as "a bunch of carrots" - and nobody noticed!!! They were all more focused on telling their own name... It makes a great impression on people when you use their name. Our name is the most important word we can hear, or read. Think of how we feel when we arrive at a convention and they don't find our nametag, or the name is misspelled. It has to do with beeing seen, appreciated - we value our identity.

  5. Catherine, I like how you changed your self image and how it affected your attitude and habits. Restating the name of the other person before giving your own name is an excellent example of how something small can make a huge difference.

    And that "bunch of carrots" example is just hilarious. I'll have to try it out myself sometime ;-)