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.
3/24/2020 06:08:15 pm
The idea of shaking someone's hand, during this pandemic, makes me squirm. I am one of those people who enjoys shaking hands, especially when I am meeting someone for the first time. It just feels right. I would definitely say that waving is common in the U.S. I wave to my friends while passing them on Court Street, after classes, when I'm out. For me, smiling and waving shows that I'm happy to see them.
3/27/2020 09:11:50 am
First of all, this is a super cool blog! I agree that shaking hands and giving physical contact in a professional relationship has many benefits.
3/29/2020 11:13:21 am
Over the last few weeks I have had the chance to reflect alongside my family, and review all of the little things we had taken for granted before our world was quickly turned upside down. One of the many things we have been missing is social interaction and the act of greeting strangers, petting new neighborhood dogs, hi-fiving a peer when you pass them on your run, and the warm embrace of a hug on someone's birthday. I smile thinking about this topic because even my youngest sister, CC, who hates any form of affection, unnecessary socialization, and small talk has been craving the attention of a neighborhood friendly face. In the blog it mentions the association between friendliness and engagement and this statement rings truer than ever during this "distanced" time. My sister is very friendly and kind, but her engagement is easily distracted and absent. Only those who know her well can make sense of her body language, gestures, and non-verbal movements making it even harder now for others to read here being so far apart in all aspects. On the opposite side; the main part of my personality and professionalism revolves around communication whether it is measured verbally, physically, or through gestures. As we continue to learn and grow with the environment around us, I keep in mind those who have struggled socially before this crisis and note that now more than ever our communication is depended on. This immense amount of pressure weighs heavy on people like my sister, but also might positively force individuals to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
3/29/2020 02:02:39 pm
I do believe that this pandemic has sort of made it almost a touchy subject on whether or not to shake hands. Personally, if it is a close friend of family member then I do not hesitate. But, if it is someone I am just meeting, I definitely hesitate and see what sort of motion they make. I do not necessarily think it is dumb to shake hands, but I understand why some people are so afraid to. Smiling and waving does seem to be the easiest solution though.
3/30/2020 12:03:12 pm
Shaking someones hand is typically something I am always doing, but during this time it can be very dangerous, and cause germs to spread very quickly. I think smiling and waving are about the only thing we can do during these times without making physical contact with other people. I feel everyone will be understanding of no physical contact during these tough times.
3/30/2020 12:31:32 pm
As someone who is never really seen shaking hands unless basically initiated by another person, I think our society needs to get rid of that norm. I understand that is is used as a professional way to make contact, but I still don't think it's necessary. It transfers germs, makes people feel awkward if someone doesn't have a good handshake (clammy, limp, etc.), and can lead to presumptions from that handshake. I mean look at some Asian countries, they bow as a sign of respect, they don't always shake hands. Maybe because of this pandemic a new form of professionalism and respect might arise. It kind of makes me think do all of our societal norms actually mean something and is it so bad if we don't follow them?
3/30/2020 12:55:48 pm
I found this blog post to be very interesting. In a time where people are lacking social interactions, one would assume people would be more willing to say "hi" or offer a friendly wave.
3/30/2020 02:21:17 pm
As a person who is NOT a homebody, the quarantine and staying away from people has truly been a struggle. I believe that I along with many others find comfort in talking to others about our exciting days. However, I feel as if my life is on loop, and there are no more exciting things to talk about. I love this post because it truly explains how humans thrive off of interaction, especially physical elements. While I would also like to believe that we would transfer our interaction from physical to virtual, I don't believe it is that easy. People that I used to talk to everyday are now strangers because we now have to pick up the phone to talk to each other. Somehow it seems like it takes more energy to connect virtually rather than physically (odd right?). Although I may be struggling now, I know that after all of this I will be a better business woman due the experience of having to transform my whole life to a virtual platform. Hopefully we can all picture the light at the end of the tunnel....or else it will be a long, dark haul. I am ending this with a virtual "pat on the back" for Mr. Gabler because he is truly an amazing professor and cares so much for his students!!
3/30/2020 06:14:34 pm
I think that shaking ones hand is not only a sign of respect and kindness in a professional setting, but also in any casual setting. Shaking someone's hand is a way to greet oneself and show that you are fully engaged in the interaction that is about to occur. While some may say that shaking hands spreads germs, so does hugging, and I am sure that almost everyone is hugging their family and friends when they greet them or say goodbye.
3/31/2020 11:09:30 am
I wonder how long it will be before we start using handshakes again- if ever. I think the pandemic will greatly change the way we communicate in general. For me personally, I have been reflecting on all the things I have taken for granted, and can't wait to get back out in the world. I haven't always been the most sociable person in the room but I do miss hearing other people talk. I have no idea what the end of this is going to look like- are we going to slowly regain privileges or there going to be a specific day when every thing starts back up at the same time? Either way, I hope to see others communicate more empathetically and value face-to-face interactions more than ever. I love technology and think it's a good way to stay connected, but I am also guilty of using it as a crutch and relying on it too much.
3/31/2020 11:47:55 am
I totally agree with this post about how normally i have seen people on the trails and bike path that would have just pasted by without saying anything to one another. Although now more than every I think people are longing for that connection socially so they get excited with the possibility of saying hello on the bike path or trails now. I honestly don't know if this would be a regular thing moving forward but it would be interesting to see.
3/31/2020 11:48:31 am
It is quite strange to hear that in a time when you think social engagement (at a safe distance) would be highest, because people have been forced to refrain from this engagement, is fairly low. I believe this could be due to the fast-paced nature of the interactions you attempted. The people on the bike path do not have time to think through whether the interaction is safe. In this time, many of our brains have been set to a mindset of people nearby = danger of spreading the virus. This could be why they instinctively turn away.
4/1/2020 01:51:18 pm
Since the covid-19 pandemic has begun I have thought a lot about how human interaction will change too. We, as a country, have recently gotten used to being comfortable and worry free. We can order anything we want and it will show up at our doorstep within two days, most of us have our own cars and can see anyone we want whenever, we have access to entertainment everywhere these days, and a booming economy. We have become very comfortable with the attractive world around us, yet never think of the worst that can happen, such as this pandemic. I believe the perfect example of this is how we interact with each other. Like you said, handshakes and hugs have become waves and smiles at most. But as I have noticed too, many people have began to ignore any social interaction with anyone around and try to avoid it. I believe that this has to do with our comfortable attraction with the world we live in. Covid-19 has destroyed the attractive illusion we have become used to, so many people are scared, stressed, and suspicious of the people and world surrounding them. I believe that is why many people have began to ignore any interaction is because we are scared of the unknown and don't have enough knowledge or preparation for what is happening around us. I don't believe this will change how we interact in the future, I just think that until this pandemic is over, and people lose the fear of the unknown, that we will go back to the way things were. Social interaction may even increase after this event because people will realize how important it is after being quarantined for long periods of time.
4/2/2020 11:27:07 am
I think that this pandemic will have long lasting ripple effects on our society. Already we've seen a significant mobilization of resources to increase public health awareness unlike what we've seen before. After this, I expect the American infastructure to be reworked to deal with emergencies on a national scale following this wakeup call. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the government begin to stockpile medical supplies and PPE gear in a very similar way to what we already do with fossil fuels and rare earth metals. I think this might also open the door to UBI-esue systems, if it's shown that the stimulus to consumers is mopre effective than stimulus directly to any one company
4/3/2020 12:46:26 pm
Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave. This is something that always sticks in my head from a cartoon I watched when I was younger. This, to me, speaks to the fact that physical touch, at least for the forseeable future, is now taboo.
4/3/2020 07:50:55 pm
It is so interesting how the way we are greeting each other is changing. We are all in a time and situation filled with uncertainty. We don't know how to act because we haven't been here before.
4/8/2020 08:29:53 am
I feel that smiling has always been something that I do to reassure people of my interest in them and what they are saying. Especially now that most of my communication with people is over zoom or Microsoft teams, I find that I need to smile more and commit myself to nodding and responding to their words because they cannot see in my body language that I am invested in the conversation. While running or walking my dog, I have also noticed that the tone around other people has changed. Sometimes when I am running past someone they are more responsive to my wave by even giving a verbal hello. I believe people do this in order to not seem rude while we are both actively avoiding being in close proximity to each other. On the other hand, some people will cross into the street to try and get maximum distance when anyone else walks by without picking their head up and looking in anyone's direction. I've noticed that mostly this behavior comes from older people who are rightfully afraid that not even the 6 feet can protect them from other people. At this point, most people with compromised immune systems are fearful of any human interaction and need to put their physical health over maintaining social norms.
4/9/2020 11:05:41 am
I agree that shaking hands could become uncommon due to the social norm effects the the COVID-19 pandemic could create. People are being warned not to shake hands and keep your hands off your face. I think this is unfortunate because I believe in a good handshake but I also understand that at the moment we live in a different world then we are usually used to.
4/9/2020 01:43:35 pm
The topic of potentially never shaking hands with one another again has come up at my family dinners a few times now since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. I totally agree with you that a good, firm handshake has always been one of the key aspects of meetings or interviews in the business world and even outside of the business world. It truly is crazy to think of a world without handshakes.
4/13/2020 03:26:13 pm
I appreciate your little science experiment and how you purposely try to interact with others, even with this pandemic going on!
4/14/2020 12:03:24 pm
I have found through personal experience that society is changing and will have more changes as we move forward with COVID-19. I work at a pizza place in my hometown right now, and it is difficult to have interactions with people especially since I am required to exchange money or credit cards with customers. Most people try to make little to no contact and as an employee, I try to maintain six feet away from customers whenever accepting money/credit cards. Through working, I have observed people are showing more eye contact and smiling with our staff instead of looking at their phones or putting their heads down, which makes me think that socially, people are more open to changing their ways.
4/18/2020 02:20:55 pm
I constantly have the same scientific experiment going on in my mind as well.
4/19/2020 06:00:00 pm
Handshakes are an important part of etiquette, and the lack of handshakes during an outbreak can really affect a lot of people.However, it is understandable to use eye contact and hand gestures for special situations, which shows politeness and prevents the spread of the virus.
4/21/2020 10:50:24 am
I have noticed the same trend when I do take walks in the afternoon. Many people appear nervous at the mere sight of another human at the moment. During a time like this, staying connected to others is extremely important even if it means we change how we do it. I am a firm believer that a smile goes a long way. This is why I continue to smile at people when I pass them by, whether they reciprocate or not. Just because they didn't smile does not mean they did not appreciate it or make their day better.
4/24/2020 10:42:40 am
I found this very interesting and noticed a similar trend myself. When walking through campus, it seems like most people go out of their way to avoid eye contact. Whether its burying their heads down, or pretending to be looking at their phones, people seem to look anywhere besides another persons face. Shaking hands is one of the few times, people are actually forced to look at each other and establish that connection. That is why it is so crucial in business. Going forward it will be interesting to see if more people wave, or head nod as a result of the Coronavirus. Maybe people will be more keen to interacting with each other again.
4/24/2020 11:13:24 am
Everyone should be following proper guidelines and ensuring that they are keeping their hands clean. This should be taken seriously to prevent anymore damage. That being said, I believe this is beginning to go too far. The anxiety following this pandemic is going to be crippling to our way of life and will damage certain fabrics of our society. Simple greetings and physical embraces will be altered and people will opt for safety over in-person relationships. More business will be conducted online than ever before, which could be positive and negative. This shift in the paradigm will scramble what we know and offer new ways of doing things.
4/30/2020 12:33:19 pm
I am also a runner that uses a bike path that frequently has other members of my community using it. And as I read through your thoughts on that spit second interaction I found many pieces that I related to. I am unsure of how the interactions have changed, but I have noticed that the amount of space that people give me now often has me double check that I put on deodorant before my run. However that half wave nod move of yours is one that I always try to utilize to the best of my ability.
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Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.