The psychology behind Trump’s awkward handshake … and how to beat him at his own game

Geoff Beattie, Edge Hill University

Handshakes are meant to be relatively simple affairs, at least in terms of their signalling function. “Shake hands on it,” we are told. “Shake and make up.” They have been used as a civilised greeting for at least 2,500 years. But Donald Trump is now in the process of redefining the handshake, transforming it into the opening salvo in a battle for supremacy.

Handshakes date back at least as far as Ancient Greece – and there are artefacts from that period featuring images of Herakles shaking hands with Athena. Glenys Davies writing in the American Journal of Archaeology said that this particular scene “represents the acceptance of Herakles as an equal by the Gods”.

On other artefacts we find images of Hera, the goddess of women and marriage in Greek mythology, shaking hands with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craft and war. These handshakes are symmetrical and equal in their execution. The sort of handshake that we would recognise instantly today.

Our common understanding is that the handshake originated as a gesture of peace, demonstrating that the hands are free and not holding a weapon. It is meant to signal cooperation, reflected in the symmetrical nature of the shape of the hands and the movement, not aggressive competition. But tell that to Trump, who uses handshakes as a weapon in his games of one-upmanship.

Indeed, Trump’s handshakes are not acts of peace, solidarity and goodwill, they are something altogether different. His “clasp and yank” handshake has taken many of its recipients by surprise. He pulls them forwards into his personal space, unbalancing them, and putting them at an immediate disadvantage. He knows that images of these greetings will be shown around the world – and that they will make it look as if he is the man in charge.

So potent is his technique that one martial arts school has even come up with advice on how to defend it.

Shaking things up

Consider, for example, Trump’s now infamous handshake with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan. Trump first presents his hand to Abe palm up, inviting Abe to take the dominant position with his hand on top. But Trump then clasps his counterpart’s hand for a 19-second marathon handshake, patting the back of Abe’s hand in several bursts of three pats. Hand patting like this is not a “comforting gesture” as some might assume. Hand patting, like shoulder touching or back patting, is a dominance signal, asymmetric in its application. Our boss can pat us on the back, we cannot pat them in return. Patting is not marked by the sorts of symmetry that constitute a cooperative handshake.

By the end, Trump’s handshake had completely overturned the initial, submissive gesture, and very much made Abe look like the (rather surprised) junior partner. But then Trump is a reality television star – he knows something about the power of iconic images and how moments such as this are perceived by the public.

In a more polite forum, a handshake should be firm, but not too vigorous, and should involve around three shakes of the hand with a full grip. It should be accompanied by a natural smile that fades slowly and an appropriate verbal greeting with the position of the handshake in the mid-zone between the two individuals.

We do know that people make judgements about others on the basis of their handshake. Research conducted by William Chaplin and colleagues from the University of Alabama, for example, showed that the characteristics of a handshake can provide accurate information about aspects of an individual’s personality.

Chaplin reported that handshakes that were “stronger, more vigorous, longer in duration and associated with more eye contact” tended to show that the individual was more extrovert and outgoing, more open to new experiences and less neurotic and shy. Similarly, in my book Get the Edge: How Simple Changes Will Transform Your Life, I discuss how this briefest of ritualised human contacts can reveal aspects of underlying personality.

Those who are particularly concerned about sending out the right signals when they meet people for the first time do think carefully about how to execute their handshake. It is reported, for example, that John F. Kennedy thought that handshakes were so important that he commissioned a study to determine the most effective varieties to use when greeting other world leaders.


Some politicians, however, are already giving Trump a run for his money, revealing how the president’s infamous handshake can be disarmed. It certainly looks like Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau prepared himself for handshake war – and we can all learn lessons from how he took Trump on. When they shook hands, Trudeau took hold of Trump’s right shoulder to both steady himself and to stop Trump yanking him forward. And later, when Trudeau shook hands with Trump while they were both seated, Trudeau extended his fingers to signal that he wanted to be released. Together, these signal that Trudeau had at least some control over the course of the interaction. They certainly play out better than Abe’s attempts in the media clips and show that Trump doesn’t hold all the cards.

Trump seemingly believes in using any resource at his disposal to gain some advantage in the political and business worlds. Senior politicians expecting routine and formulaic handshakes have been knocked off guard by Trump’s unpredictable behaviour. They find themselves yanked into his personal space, where it is difficult or impossible for them to make eye contact, or to talk coherently without looking away. This gives Trump an advantage in the game of micro-politics.

His handshakes are clearly all about status rather than solidarity. From a psychological perspective, they are arguably self-serving and egocentric, and demonstrate that, as in many aspects of life, the most important thing to Donald Trump is Donald Trump himself.

The discomfort on Shinzo Abe’s face when his hand was finally released from Trump’s 19-second shake was plain for all to see, but Trump does not seem to care too much for the discomfort of others. If he did, he would not make them ill at ease in such a calculated way.

There’s more to life than handshakes, but they do say an awful lot about the new “leader of the free world”. And if you ever get to meet him, make sure you do your handshake homework first.

The Conversation

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Hillary Clinton’s concession speech – a class political act

Presidential election banner background. US Presidential election 2016. Hand putting voting paper in the ballot box with american flag on background.  Flat design, vector illustration.

It’s normal for conceding presidential candidates to give their speech in the middle of the night, as their guests are still at HQ and the final results are trickling in.

Hillary Clinton, however, decided not to do that after losing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. Instead her team arranged for a mid-morning speech on the day after the vote. It was held at a separate venue – at a hotel in New York – with seats for staff and supporters.

Speeches by losing candidates are interesting. The chosen tone, message, content and length tell us a lot about the state of democracy and the health of the candidate’s party. In fact, a CNN commentator claimed ahead of Clinton’s address that the concession speech is often more important for the health of democracy than the victory speech.

Clinton’s decision to make her speech in the morning means that she could say something more planned than if she had to cobble together a late-night reaction at a “let’s get it over with” event. It also means a better chance for news coverage, since a little time has passed since the upset of the result.

A later speech, according to commentators such as CNN, allowed Clinton to concede “on her own terms”. Crucially, it also meant not speaking in front of a set clearly designed for a victory speech.

Her role post result was to thank supporters but also to attempt to get some key messages across. Media have been briefed that Clinton’s speech would be a message to the American people about “the way forward”.

Chelsea Clinton after her mother’s speech.EPA

She stressed the need for participation over time. Democracy, she reminded her supporters, does not just mean casting a vote every four years, it’s a constant commitment. While she appealed to her audience to accept the result, the message was clear – continue to monitor Trump’s America.

“Our campaign was never about one person or one election,” she said. “It was about the country we love, about building a country that was hopeful, inclusive and big hearted.”

She was also keen to stress inclusion, shared values, and the “vision we hold for our country”, despite not making any direct references to concern that her opponent lacks these values.

There was a strong sense of passing on a torch to her supporters: “You represent the best of America,” she told the room, before promising that a woman president will happen one day.

I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling but some day, someone will and hopefully sooner than we think right now.

Speaking to the alarm felt by many about the tone of the campaign, Clinton acknowledged the divisions in American society and stressed “the rule of law” and equality under the law. “We respect and cherish these values … and we must defend them,” she said.

Whether this was a goodbye, or a rallying call for a new movement, isn’t quite clear. But Clinton was certainly keen to focus on the future of her country rather than dwelling on her loss. She admitted the the result is painful and “will be for some time” and there was a moment when she looked ready to cry, but she pulled it back quickly.

So what now for Hillary Clinton? I’m not sure. But the delivery of a speech like this on a day which must be full of pain shows she is nothing if not a professional political operator.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Barry Goldwater’s ‘paranoid style’ may yet win Trump the presidency

‘Crooked Hillary’, as Trump supporters know her.  EPA/Cristobal Herrera
‘Crooked Hillary’, as Trump supporters know her. EPA/Cristobal Herrera

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a still widely read 1964 essay for Harper’s Magazine outlining what he called the “paranoid style” in American politics. Marked by “a sense of heated exaggeration”, suspicion, and wild fears of political conspiracy, it was, he argued, a common part of American political life. It dated back to the rise of the antislavery movement before the Civil War, and every so often, it resurfaced at times of national crisis.

Hofstadter was alarmed to see this way of thinking infuse the politics of his own time. One example was the “Red Scare”, a series of anti-communist investigations and purges led by Senator Joe McCarthy. And then there was Barry Goldwater, the Republican party’s 1964 presidential nominee.

Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, was an outsider in the Republican party, known for his staunch anti-communism and opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He surprised everybody by beating the better-known and more moderate Nelson Rockefeller to become the party’s choice for president.

Goldwater picked up support from conservative voters who feared their role in society was under threat – that the fast-changing US was being taken away from them and their kind. “Traditional American values” were being undermined by left-wing intellectuals; the country was in danger, under threat from communist aggression abroad and Soviet spies and sympathisers at home.

Barry Goldwater.Marion S. Trikosko via Wikimedia Commons.

Mainstream political leaders didn’t understand these fears, or simply chose to ignore them. But Goldwater did understand, and he won over grassroots activists by speaking directly to their concerns.

At home, he promised to reduce government spending and cut welfare payments. Abroad, he was committed to militant anti-Communism, including the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. He summed up his views at the Republican party convention in 1964: “

I would remind you that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Goldwater was admired by Republican activists, but the wider electorate considered him beyond the pale. In the November election, he was crushed by the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s campaign fundamentally changed the thinking of his party – and five decades on, the conditions that led to the rise of Goldwater are on full display once again.

Fear and loathing

In his 1964 essay, Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style tends to resurface when class, ethnic and religious conflicts come to the fore. All three are roiling the US today.

The gap between the political elite and middle- and working-class Americans is as wide as it’s ever been. The uncertainty that set in after the economic crisis of 2008 endures; it has left workers deeply anxious about jobs and wages – and they fear labour competition from immigrants, especially Mexican ones. Internationally, the rise of radical Islam has threatened American interests abroad – and a series of “home-grown” extremist terror attacks have only reinforced the image of a nation under threat.

Mainstream politicians have been slow to respond, but like Goldwater before him, Trump has seized the moment. He has promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, keep out Muslim immigrants and cancel free trade agreements to protect American jobs. As for the rest of the world, he has promised tough measures to wipe out the so-called Islamic State and has talked particularly tough on China.

As a self-proclaimed crusader against a corrupt political establishment, Trump has promised to see Hillary Clinton thrown in jail. He will “drain the swamp” to clean up the political system.

As Hofstadter put it, the paranoid style of mind creates “heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed”. Sure enough, many of Trump’s supporters apparently see their candidate as a knight in shining armour who can do no wrong. From this standpoint, attacks on his campaign aren’t grounded in reality or motivated purely by political differences; they are the work of a political conspiracy.

Crooked Hillary” is a “nasty woman” rather than a political opponent with a different vision for America. The election is being “rigged”, and Trump will only accept the result if he wins.

Trump has successfully cultivated an image of martyrdom, which goes a long way to explaining why he has survived myriad allegations of personal misconduct that would have destroyed any normal campaign. To his devotees, accusations of tax evasion and scamming are over-egged or false, while the women who have accused him of sexual harassment are lying gold-diggers bankrolled by the Washington establishment.

So while Trump may seem like an anomaly, his campaign is in fact a constellation of familiar themes pulled together at a particularly fraught moment in US history. And candidates like this have won before.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, another ideologically conservative Republican outsider, was elected president. To some on the right, Reagan – who spoke in Goldwater’s favour at the 1964 convention – represented the ultimate vindication of Goldwater’s vision. The thread connecting the three candidates was on full display in Reagan’s convention speech in 1980, where he pledged to “make America great again”.

It remains to be seen if Trump will enjoy the success of Reagan or go down in flames like Goldwater. Either way, Hillary Clinton should understand his political appeal as well as anyone: in 1964, aged just 17, she campaigned for Goldwater herself.The Conversation

Kevern Verney, Associate Dean (Research), Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump’s coronation week: what does a presidential convention really achieve?

Subtlety be damned. EPA/Shawn Thew
Subtlety be damned. EPA/Shawn Thew

This year’s Republican National Convention kicked off with a bizarre day. Party delegates openly fought over the convention’s rules, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered a belligerent anti-crime broadside under the banner “Make America Safe Again”, and Donald Trump’s wife Melania addressed the convention only to be accused of plagiarising a speech by Michelle Obama.

But then again, conventions have always been strange beasts, especially when viewed from abroad. Voters in many democracies are used to at least annual party conferences that combine various functions from policymaking to PR, from internal elections to training grounds for candidates and party workers.

In the US, however, the conventions come along once every four years and they are really only about one thing: nominating a presidential candidate.

Of course, by the time a convention comes along, the candidate has usually already won. It’s now very rare for the decision to be brokered at one of these events, and although there is often speculation about this, there is also pressure on those involved not to leave things to the convention floor. So the event acts as a shop window, both for the candidate and the other figures clustered around them.

The choice, for example, of who else will speak is often a good pointer to who is viewed as a rising star, or who has managed to negotiate that appearance. And supporting speakers are often chosen to highlight particular themes. So we can learn both from the contents and delivery of the speeches as well as from who is up there on stage.

While the political establishment in each party may well know a lot about a vice-presidential nominee, the vast majority of voters will not. This matters because a running mate is often chosen to “balance” the ticket and broaden its appeal, whether on ideology, age, gender, or religion.

Trump’s choice, Mike Pence, will need to establish himself as a known quantity with all those citizens outside his home state of Indiana, and the convention is his first and best chance. This means giving his audience a sense of himself as a person as well as a politician.

Sarah Palin, John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 running mate, is a good parallel here.

Lipstick on a pitbull

The McCain campaign surprised almost everyone when it unveiled Palin the day after Obama accepted his nomination. Alaska carries as little weight as any other state in presidential elections and is far removed from most Americans’ lives, so Palin had no national profile to speak of.

Even in the few days between the announcement and her speech, various unflattering stories emerged that threatened to make her toxic before she’d even been formally nominated. But when she spoke only days later, she silenced her critics (albeit briefly) with a remarkably assured and powerful performance for such a newcomer.

Watching it again, its power is still striking. Confident and assured beyond her experience, Palin spent an inordinate amount of time talking about her family, with the camera focusing in on her children, husband and parents – a powerful tactic to quickly make herself seem familiar and sympathetic, a humble Alaska “hockey mom” with a son fighting in Iraq.

But the speech is best known for one of those memorable soundbites that find a permanent place in the political lexicon. There is but one difference, said Palin, between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick. In one short phrase, she encapsulated a highly effective brand: a tough, protective mother just like millions all over the US, one who just happened to be a competent and effective governor.

Clearly Mike Pence can’t claim the cachet of a hockey mom. But when he speaks on July 20, he will need to find his own way to become relatable, as well as to convey some of those qualities which Trump’s campaign will want to highlight. Besides his religious and social conservative credentials – things for which Trump is hardly noted – his strong suit will be competence and executive experience.

While Trump has had trouble attracting party heavyweights to Cleveland, many of the other speakers at conventions are rising stars being offered one of their earliest national platforms. Some have gone on to run for president and to win; there are few better examples than Barack Obama, whose remarkable 2004 speech launched him as a national figure.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a rising star when he was chosen to nominate Michael Dukakis in 1988, but the speech he gave is remembered mostly for the audience’s audible relief when he uttered the words “in closing”.

Ultimately, conventions are chances for the campaigns and their principals to test whether their brand will work in the autumn campaign – massive market research exercises where themes, phrases, and people are road-tested and focus-grouped for the intense autumn sprint.

In this most unpredictable of election years, it’ll be fascinating to see what survives the jamborees in Cleveland and Philadelphia and makes it through to election night in November.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.