What to Do When You Can’t Be in “Touch”

At the beginning of the year, I read that the Me Too Movement was causing some companies to ban handshakes. Knowing the neuroscience behind the ritual, I thought this was idiotic.

Then Covid-19 hit, and everyone had to adopt this.

We’ve seen the awkward elbow bumps and overly enthusiastic hand waving when people get together. But for most of us, “contact” these days is virtual.

What Handshakes Mean in Your Job—and Brain

Research shows that a solid handshake matters more than any other variable in a job or new business interview. Having a firm handshake shows you are genuinely pleased to meet someone and gives the impression of competence and warmth.

A good handshake increases people’s positive perception of you (if they have one). It also can overcome some or all of their negative perceptions if you flubbed part of a meeting.

It’s legendary that handshakes developed to show others that you weren’t carrying a weapon. But the truth is that most people long for physical connection—and shaking hands has been the first step in creating a bond.

According to studies by oxytocin guru and professor Paul Zak, this hormone helps our brains “unconsciously assess if a person is trustworthy, using our memory of past encounters and all of our senses, including touch. If the stranger is a good match for other trustworthy people, the brain releases oxytocin, telling us it is safe to trust.”

Oxytocin triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This hits the reward center in our brains, so the new person’s trustworthiness becomes associated with our own feeling of pleasure.

Three Ways to Connect on Screen

We’ve lost a valuable tool for creating a positive impression and connection in virtual meetings. In new business or job search mode, you hope one day to be in that person’s presence. What can you do to get the chance to ultimately shake their hands and seal the deal?

Attend to what I call your “virtual handshake.”

First: Remove Distractions. You can find plenty of information on this. Clothes that reflect the vibe of the company to show you fit with their culture. Colors that look good on you and aren’t so intense they pixilate on the screen.

Declutter your setting, so the other person isn’t looking at a mess or busy background that distracts her or him from you.

Control interruptions as much as you can (although a quick acknowledgement of your cat walking in front of you can give everyone a moment of humor and humanity).

Second: Smile. Nervousness can make us all appear more intense—and even angry. Most people are unaware of how their faces look when they aren’t speaking. This has given rise to the phrase “resting bitch face.

Cultivate a slight smile (think Mona Lisa) when you’re not speaking. This will enhance the impression that you’re happy to be there and open to this conversation. Also smile when you speak. This will give your voice a warmer and more pleasant tone.

Third: Share What Eye Contact Means. 80% of the people in the world value eye contact. (See my TEDx Talk on how to read people’s minds.)

But virtual meeting platforms aren’t set up to do this. The camera is at the top of your screen, and your eyes are drawn to the Brady Bunch boxes of people below that. This makes it appear you’re not looking at them.

Establish the norm for eye contact with something like this (in your own words):

“I really care about this conversation and am giving you my full attention. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that way on Zoom [or the name of the platform you’re using]. Here’s how I’d like to fix that. When I speak, I’ll look directly into the camera, so you know I’m talking to you. And when you’re speaking, I’ll look at your image on the screen. That’s because I want to get a better sense of all of you—not just your voice. So while it may appear I’m not looking at you—I really am. Is that OK with you?”

This should relieve the tension for everyone. It also will give you the opportunity to ask questions about their settings or genuinely compliment others, which shows you’re interested in addition to being interesting.

Someday …

Until it’s safe to get together, use these three ideas to create your virtual handshake. Stimulate the oxytocin and dopamine in their brains to create the connection we all crave—and the opportunities you seek.