Every question you have about the post-pandemic handshake answered

The handshake is a pretty simple gesture, but ever since its rise in the business world, it has created a lot of questions and gray areas. From whether you should use a handshake in a job interview to the best form for a handshake, the gesture isn’t as cut and dry as one may think. And the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t made the matter any simpler. When the U.S. returns to the workplace, they will be faced with a series of questions, with one definitely being: to shake or not to shake?

Ladders spoke with Laura Katen, president of development training company KATEN CONSULTING and author of “The Communication Habit,” to find out why handshakes are important, how you can compensate for not using them right now, and when the handshake will make its way back into the communication and business worlds.

Do people still use handshakes in 2020?

“From a communication standpoint and a business social etiquette standpoint, the world respects and expects handshaking prior to COVID-19 because it was a way of immediately making somebody feel seen and immediately letting somebody know that you want to break down barriers, you want to build rapport, and you respect that person,” Katen said. “I travel about 150 days a year across North America and what I’ve found is that was very much the case when it came to handshaking.”

Why is a handshake important?

From a communication standpoint, handshakes are extremely important nonverbal cues.

“This is a huge nonverbal cue. I don’t even have to say a word. Simply by extending my handshake, I’m breaking down barriers,” Katen said. “I’m letting you know right away that I want to build rapport with you. I want to make you feel comfortable. Without even opening your mouth, you very quickly let the recipient know so many positive messages that set the tone for the rest of that meeting or interaction.”

Nonverbal communication cues are important because research has shown that over half of our personal messaging is nonverbal in terms of body language we present and other nonverbal actions we do.

“It’s the nonverbal actions that we take all resonate with the recipient before we even open our mouth,” Katen said. “That’s huge messaging.”

A handshake is a great way to begin an interaction by sending a positive message to another individual, but it’s also a great way to show that you are present with someone. Consider the difference in two situations: one in which someone walks over to your table in a restaurant and you say, “It is great to meet you,” and one in which you stand up, make eye contact with them, extend your hand and then say, “It is great to meet you.” A handshake breaks down the barrier of space between two individuals and paves the way for other barriers to be broken.

How to compensate for not being able to shake hands over video call

“I haven’t traveled at all since COVID-19. So everything I do in person, I now have to do through zoom and online,” Katen said. “All the dynamism and energy and interaction and rapport that I bring in person, how do you communicate that when you’re virtual and over video?”

When you are communication virtually, you need to compensate in various ways to make sure the person you are communicating with feels

First, Katen recommends definitely doing a video call rather than having a phone call.

“Let that person see you because, again, over 55% of the message we communicate is through our nonverbal cues. And when you are voice to voice now it’s 93%,” Katen said. “It’s how we sound when we’re speaking. Can you hear the energy in my voice? Can you hear that I want to speak to you, or does that person sound exasperated and bored and tired and distracted? Do they not want to be on this call?”

When on a video call, use your voice and body language to make sure to convey that you are engaged in the call. Your body language should convey that you are confident, present, and engaged by leaning into the camera and continuing eye contact.

“If you’re shifting all-around with your eye contact or looking at the corner of the screen, versus the camera itself, the person receiving that eye contact might think I’m looking elsewhere but at them,” Katen said.

On top of your active engagement, there are also other ways to make up for the lack of a handshake over a video call, including more personal conversations with the person you are talking to.

“I’m not just getting to business,” Katen said. “Maybe I’m asking you a follow-up question about something you shared with me. Maybe I’m allowing this COVID-19 to bond us by asking, ‘How are you doing during this time?'”

All of these elements combines will be your handshake, according to Katen.

“That’s going to be your replacement for your handshake,” she said. “That’s your compensation for not being able to handshake.”

Should we and will we still handshake after the coronavirus pandemic?

There won’t be an official mandate from the Centers for Disease Control about whether or not it’s safe to use handshakes again, so people will have to use their best judgment.

“My clients have asked, ‘What’s the proper protocol now?’ First off, we have to stay safe and healthy,” Katen said.

The number one priority when considering this topic is health safety. Second, you always want to respect the individual on the other end of the interaction.

Even before COVID-19, you would not sneeze into your hand and then extend it for someone to shake. If you are sick, it’s respectful to say to the other person, “I am not feeling 100% right now and I would hate to pass anything along to you.”

“The same thing holds true now, because you may not have the virus, but there’s a fear associated with interactions and the virus,” Katen said. “In order to respect and honor the recipient, you wouldn’t want to put them in an uncomfortable situation.”

When it comes to handshaking after coronavirus, you don’t want to extend you hand and have someone shake it without thinking about it and then have them concerned about the action they just took. In the end, they will assign the discomfort they feel to you.

With all that being said, the handshake is not going to disappear completely from the business world, according to Katen.

“We are going to crave interaction at some point. It’s not going to be immediate, because the fear is going to overshadow the need for interaction,” Katen said. “For a few months now, probably well into fall, maybe even winter of 2020, we’re going to be very cautious. We may interact more, we may decide to do more activities, but we probably won’t offer a handshake or interact in that kind of body to body way for a while.”

Katen predicts that we will keep our physical distance for a while, but in order to not create emotional distance, we will need to do more and have more interactions that won’t be as personal and in each other’s space.

The time for in-person gatherings will emerge again.

“We’re going to need to feel like we’re connecting, and oftentimes we feel a connection through greetings, eye contact, close proximity and handshakes,” Katen said. “I foresee that it’s really going to pick back up and normalize probably spring of 2021.”

How can you politely decline a handshake after the coronavirus pandemic?

The thought of venturing out into the public world again frightens many people. We may have to adjust back to feeling comfortable having someone handle our food, touch our hair, and shake our hands.

If you don’t feel comfortable shaking hands, there are ways to avoid such interactions without offending the person on the other end of that offer.

“What we have to remember is, when somebody extends a hand, there are so many good messages around that and we never want to embarrass the recipient or the person who is extending,” Katen said.

The person offering their hand is saying exactly what we discussed above about wanting to build a relationship with their handshake,

“If somebody extends to you during this time of uncertainty, the best thing to say is what we’re all saying right now, which is, ‘I want to connect, I also need to stay safe and stay healthy,’” Katen said. 

Whenever you are not extending an offer back to someone, you don’t want the person to be offended or embarrassed. To prevent any sort of uncomfortable feelings in this situation, you want to present a statement of positivity before the statement of rejection.

By saying “I want to connect with you” you are making the nest statement of “but I need to stay safe and stay healthy” less hurtful or harsh to that person. A simple “no thank you” could come off as aggressive or hurtful, and subsequently keep your bond with that person from growing, which is why a statement of positivity is extremely important.

“The recipe for when you’re not going to engage with somebody is always to let them know in a positive way that you want to, and then why you’re not,” Katen said.  “In some small way, that takes the edge off what could be seen as a rejection to that person.”

There are also ways in which you can use the nonverbal cues already discussed to signal to a person that you are not ready to shake hands with them.

“The subtle nuances that accompany a handshake are really important..making sure that your body is facing that individual, you’re not giving them profile,” Katen said.

So on the flip side, you can use body language to signal that you would rather a smile or a wave than a handshake.

“When you send the nonverbal message that you’re still smiling and making eye contact, and you’re keeping that distance, they would probably be less apt to extend into your personal space,” Katen said. “So subtle nuances and cues without offending somebody can be helpful in sending the message of what makes you comfortable.”

What to do instead of a handshake

“I always shake hands with all of my participants in my keynotes, my clients and my colleagues,” Katen said. “Now if I see somebody, obviously, I keep my distance, but I look at them with more meaningful eye contact, or maybe I’ll smile for a little bit longer, maybe I’ll make more small talk. I’m compensating in a way to make connection that I’m not doing through that handshake.

According to Katen, if you can’t build a connection in a normal way, it’s important to find replacements. Using video chat and spending more time asking about how that person is doing are great ways to build connection in this unprecedented time.

Things to think about if you want to use a handshake

When it comes to any “social norm”, you should think about if that norm is appropriate for the environment that you are in.

“Whether that’s a COVID environment, a cultural environment, or a religious environment…know your environment because ultimately the key here is the person you’re interacting with, you want them to feel respected and comfortable around you,” Katen said.