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A sincere hand shake is THE number one, cost-free, most powerful tool in marketing. Period. (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

The value of a handshake (or lack thereof)

A handshake. Such a simple gesture, yet it means so much. Did you know the handshake started as a symbol of peace in the fifth century B.C.? (It's tough to hide or use a weapon when clasping hands.)

Over the years, the simple handshake evolved to become a greeting, convey "thank yous," and symbolize business deals, good sportsmanship, trust and respect.

But where has that heartfelt gesture gone? By the wayside, it seems, primarily amongst our youngsters. (They have plenty of physical symbols and interactions but, at least to us, fist bumps and the like serve a totally different purpose.)

Even in business, the once-standard greeting and symbol of closing a deal has mostly disappeared, replaced by head nods and forms of agreement that don't require physical contact.

Why is that? Is it because we rely so heavily on technology and don't interact socially like we once did? Is it because we're worried about catching something if we touch another human being? We don't worry about handling money, even though it's been proven money can carry hundreds of microorganisms and traces of all sorts of other substances.

Or is it simply that our up-and-coming generations don't see the value of a handshake in the same way past generations did? We don't know the answer, but we hope this physical symbol of connection, trust and respect isn't on its last legs.

Case in point: we recently witnessed an exchange between a 20-something and an older "boomer." The boomer was making business arrangements with "XYZ" company, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. The 20-something managed nearly the entire conversation with his hands in his pockets — no handshake whatsoever as an introduction, thank you, or to finalize the deal. (If we'd been the boomers involved, we might have thought about considering other options.)

But it isn't just a generational thing — it's also about where you live. You can go to nearly any rural area in America and very young children—we're talking grade-school-young here—are taught to shake hands, and also what that handshake means. It baffles country kids when, outside of a rural atmosphere, adults are surprised to be offered that natural gesture during introductions or when taking their leave.

We admit there are some exceptions. There are circumstances where history hasn't quite caught up and women shaking hands is still frowned upon. These aren't as frequent as they once were, but they still exist. And, in some instances, cultural beliefs prevent women and men from physical contact. We get that, and we respect it.

But when you can shake hands, DO IT. The benefits — social and in business—far outweigh any awkwardness you might feel. According to experts at the University of Iowa, handshakes are "more important than agreeableness, conscientiousness, or emotional stability." Studies also show that a handshake improves the quality of interactions and produces a higher degree of trust almost instantaneously. There's an amazing power in physical connection.

A sincere hand shake is THE number one, cost-free, most powerful tool in marketing. Period.

Your first impression may get you in the door. But a good handshake will do far more for you any day of the week than how you're dressed, what brand of watch you're wearing or what rig you drive.

It costs you nothing to smile and shake someone's hand. And that handshake could be the beginning of a relationship—business, personal, or both—that will last for years.

Your handshake is your word. Use it often and well, and always with a smile.