Because I teach courses in business and professional development, every semester, we spend a few minutes discussing the keys to a professional handshake. Not too firm, not too soft, the correct number of ‘ups-and-downs’, dry your hand if it is clammy, etc. No lobster-claw, dead-fish, leave-ya-hangin, pass-the-teacup, bone-crusher, southpaw, Queen’s fingertips, fist bumps, chest bumps, high-fives, high-fives-into-low-fives, high-fives-into-foot-grabs, bro-hugs, halfsies, limpsies, etc. I put importance on this task because it is often the only physical contact we have in a professional relationship. It seems crazy to even type this right now, but I usually have students shake the hands of ten other students. (My classes can attest this semester—about 6 weeks ago now—I refrained from this exercise. Not due to Coronavirus but simply to not spread any germs around a class of 150 students). Suffice it to say, I think this is an important skill that requires practice and attention. While the do’s and don’ts of handshaking seem obvious, I’m always surprised by the learning that takes place in this lesson.
Now that we cannot (or should not) be within 6 feet of each other, let alone shake hands, what other ways can we connect? Waving, smiling, and eye contact.
The gesture of a wave is built into our culture from a young age. You wave goodbye to your parents when they leave for work. Santa Claus waves from a faux chimney during the holiday parade on Main Street. You wave as your kid goes off to college. And if you are like some wonderful folks I know, you wave when someone drives away from your house until they are literally past the horizon or around the corner and you can’t see them anymore.
Smiles are even more a part of our culture (in the US, at least, this is not the case in other countries—but that is for another blog post). We get excited the first time a baby smiles and we decide whether or not it is worth asking someone out on a date based on a reciprocation of a smile across the proverbial crowded room. Universities and trainings even teach subtle smiling nuances in our professional development classes to help people ace the interview.
Eye contact is crucial to non-verbal communication. It demonstrates that you are engaged in a conversation, that you are actively listening to a person speak, and allows you to convey empathy. Too little can show disinterest or lack of trustworthiness. Too much can be threatening or downright creepy. But we each calibrate to the other person to effectively achieve the correct recipe for the situation. It puts us at ease and makes the conversation comfortable.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, handshakes are out. Smiling, waving, and eye contact are in. Or are they? My assumption was that given the social distancing taking place all across the world, human nature would lead us to do more of these three things. Online meetings and conference calls do not allow for physical touch, so we are making do with our other tools. We even have a name for the smile/nod combination we all do at the beginning of a Zoom or Teams meeting: the ‘virtual handshake’.
However, anecdotally, this has not translated to my in-person interactions. Living in a small college town, (now emptied of half of its population when students were sent home), I take to the bike path almost every day for a long walk or run, and I’ve been doing an observational analysis. I try to make eye contact, smile and/or wave at every person I see. You know, the little half up wave, maybe a slight nod or ‘hey’ as you pass someone. My prediction was that more people would reciprocate than, say, last fall when I was on the same bike path doing the same walks or runs. Being bottled up in our homes, practicing social distancing, self-isolating, etc., led me to believe we would crave more interaction (as fleeting as a wave or smile) when we were out in the world.
Unfortunately, I did not start this study last fall to provide a control, making this completely unscientific study even less credible, but I have been surprised in the 1:4 ratio of people who reciprocate with a smile, wave, or eye contact versus people who a) look away, b) look at their phone, c) meet my eyes but quickly look away, d) or ignore me all together.
Now granted, there are a lot of biases and other extraneous variables at play here. And yes I am aware that I might be known as the weirdo on the bike path who waves at everyone, but I was surprised by this result. Perhaps fear has trumped (hate to use that word) the longing for social connection? We associate friendliness with engagement, which we associate with human interaction, which is what we know spreads this virus. Perhaps in that split second as I run (super fast) by the other person, fear bubbles to the surface just ahead of the need to socially interact. Maybe that gut instinct is “human interaction=bad” followed closely by “human interaction=good/great/essential.” Who knows, maybe if I turned around, they’d all be waving and smiling back. I like to think so.