Can digital ever replace a handshake?

A recent remote meeting has left Arden University’s Dr Ben Silverstone asking if videoconferencing is an example of technology progressing more quickly than our ability to adapt to it

Recently I attended a videoconference meeting to go through a mortgage application at my local bank branch. Since I work in distance learning I was very comfortable with the process, but I could tell that my wife was not. 

That evening, she mentioned that the problem was that there was no handshake. As a funeral director, she relies on relationships with families to do her job and she feels that a big part of that relationship starts, and is cemented by, a handshake. 

This gave me pause for thought. In a digital world, what replaces a handshake in everyday discussions, or even formal meetings like a mortgage appointment?

A good place to start is whether handshakes are important any more. 

It is generally accepted that they are a significant part of creating a business relationship, and studies have shown that they can be used effectively to rapidly cement relationships and improve interactions. Indeed, the handshake is not just a western practice – it is important in many cultures around the world. 

Psychology literature suggests that a handshake is both an art and a science. Practice is important, and there is much that we can learn from someone’s handshake. One study even suggested that they were more important than a number of emotional and mental traits in the execution of successful business relationships. 

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However, the efficiency gained through an increase in videoconferencing, and the value of being able to engage with people on a global scale in a virtually face-to-face way prevents us from engaging in one of the most important elements of relationship building: shaking hands. 

Is there a way of working around this? In an effort to do so, Skype introduced the handshake emoticon. The little picture was meant to signify that a handshake was being offered, and help bridge the physical divide. But this raises a further question: is it the intent that is important in a handshake, or the physical act of doing it? 

All of the articles I have explored whilst writing this discuss the importance of the physical act of shaking hands: firmness, temperature, and body language all play an essential role in the importance of the gesture and its results, but there is little mention of the intent behind it. It appears that simply intending to shake hands, or indicating that you would if you were there, is not enough – it has to actually happen. 

So, what can we use instead of a handshake? It seems that nobody has really thought this through. Our society is still heavily wedded to the concept of relationship building by using handshakes, but has chosen to adopt methods of communication that, however efficient, preclude their use. 

I started this journey to help my wife to make better sense of how to view the relationship we have with our now virtual mortgage advisor. However, everything I have read points towards the fact that social interaction is all the poorer for not including handshakes. Everything that they represent – the trust, the warmth, the engagement – is missing. 

What really seemed to make her most unsettled is that a handshake to signify the end of the meeting was not there; we just got up and left with the advisor on the screen. Perhaps something to signify the start and end of the meeting would go some way to alleviating the problem, but this is a perfect example of the pace of technological change outstripping society’s ability to adapt. Until someone finds a way to create a digital approach that has the same impact as a handshake, social interaction is set to enter a stage that we are simply not prepared for. 

It is difficult to make detailed recommendations to overcome this issue, as there appears to be a very real physical barrier. However, in the case of the mortgage appointment, someone in branch who assumed the role of meet-and-greet and brought things to a close would have gone some way to bridging the divide. 

Where organisations intend on using videoconferencing more regularly, providing customers with greater information about the person they are speaking to may also have a positive impact on the development of a relationship – but there will need to be a concerted effort to put something in place to avoid a loss of confidence.

Sam Trendall

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