You might not know it, but today just happens to be National Handshake Day. And while this observance might slide by under the radar for many folks, for people like us who work in leadership development, it’s actually pretty meaningful.

When it comes to first impressions, your handshake says a lot about you, and the stakes may be higher than you think. Trust, confidence, likeability, strength, weakness, respect, suspicion, and a host of other dynamics hang in the balance every time you shake the hand of someone you are meeting for the first time. A firm, confident handshake while making eye contact with the other person is one of those Leadership 101 skills that most of us, by the time we enter the workforce, hope has been instilled in us by our parents or other influencer during our adolescent years. But this is not always the case.

There is something very satisfying when a handshake is done well—a kind of positive, optimistic energy that says something is good is about to happen between two confident, capable people. Like sticking the landing, crushing your drive, or acing the serve, it just feels good. On the other hand, it’s likely you’ve also experienced one of these so-called handshakes that miss the mark and, well, make for an awkward start:

The Alpha
Okay, we get it…you’re confident, but it’s not a death grip contest. Crushing the other person’s hand or having your hand crushed generally evokes one of two things—a challenge to match brute force with brute force (setting up a competition dynamic not generally favorable for initial meetings), or a kind of “What is WRONG with you?” facial expression that is impossible to hide. Rather than establishing a sense of trust and win/win collaboration, an inequitable win/lose dynamic sets the tone for what’s to follow: One of you is in charge, and don’t you forget it.

The Dead Fish
On the other hand (pun intended), if you’ve ever given or received a so-called “handshake” that has all the confidence and firmness of a lifeless trout, you understand just how uncomfortable the room becomes and fast. You might want to consider a fist bump and passing it off as a pandemic holdover just so everyone can focus and avoid dwelling on what just happened for the next 10 minutes.

 The Near Miss
Everything starts well—confidence, eye contact, and intentions for a great first impression are all good. And then, by some fluke of speed, angle of approach, crosswind, or whatever the expected firm handshake is flubbed, leaving one or both of you looking surprised and embarrassed. These experiences are often accompanied by a sheepish grin and the phrase, “Let’s try that again.”

Of course, the more substantive meaning behind a firm handshake is the notion of trust. For ages, when people want to cement a deal or an agreement, they don’t bow or high-five on it…they shake on it. It means both parties can be trusted to honor the deal, bargain, or agreement—and generally without the need for a contractual document. Their word and their handshake are the contract, symbolically speaking.

As we all know, legally binding contracts are essential for many formal business dealings and we’re all for them. “Good fences make good neighbors,” as the saying goes. But the message we send when we shake hands is powerful in its own way: “We are people of integrity and can trust one another to honor our agreements… contract or no contract.”