Non-verbal business communication is an essential part of how we communicate. One famous (and often misunderstood) study from the 1960s estimated that the emotional content and interpretation of about 93 percent of human communication is significantly influenced by body language, attitude, and tone, with only 7 percent of the emotional content relying solely on the actual words that are used. While the study focused on the emotions, not the literal meanings, behind what we communicate, this is still significant.
In the world of business too, as well as in our everyday lives, non-verbal communication expresses a range of emotional content that we wish to convey. When we shake hands upon meeting someone, for instance, it usually signifies that we are pleased to see or meet them and often reinforces verbal utterances like, “It’s great to see/meet you.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to convey the emotions we can normally show through our culturally diverse repertoire of body language. As a result, people have been coming up with creative solutions like the “Wuhan shake” or the “air handshake.” Some voices in the media have even been asking if the “new normal” might mark the end of the traditional handshake.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CORONAVIRUS RIGHT NOW
The truth is that the pandemic has not changed the use of body language and other non-verbal communication in the world of business or in human interaction in general. It is simply escalating the changes that have already been happening or were bound to happen at some point.
Essential business communications solutions are evolving
Let’s start with the handshake. Since the 5th century B.C. we have been shaking hands to show that we “come in peace” and are carrying no weapons. Similar gestures in different cultures include my personal favorites, the Thai wai greeting or the Arab world’s “thank you” gesture of placing your right hand over your heart. Most likely the handshake, and other similar greetings and farewells that involve skin contact, will not completely disappear but simply evolve.
For example, perhaps business meetings that take place over lunch or dinner will integrate opportunities in which the social expectation would be for everyone to wash their hands before sitting down for the meal, much in the same way that we expect people who have just used the restroom to wash their hands before exiting it.
Next, take business cards. Exchanging business cards is a culturally widespread ritual that often accompanies handshaking when people greet each other (as in Japan and Korea) or upon handshaking while saying goodbyes. LinkedIn has already effectively been killing the business card for some time now. Perhaps COVID-19 will finally be the nail in the coffin. And anyways, scanning or airdropping a LinkedIn connection is not only more hygienic, but also more sustainable since traditional business cards involve a lot of printing and, frankly, waste.
Though not common in the U.S., the cheek kiss, or la bise as it’s known in France, is widespread throughout Europe in both business and everyday settings. While most people have largely stopped this practice as a result of the pandemic, this would not be the first time that people have stopped the practice. Kissing in public was banned and punishable by death in Naples, Italy, in 1562 due to the spread of disease.
Business setups, practices, and travel will also change
Going beyond body language that involves skin contact, there are other business-related practices involving contact with surfaces that will also likely be phased out. Again, this would probably have happened anyway, but COVID-19 has hastened the process. The use of AirPlay and other mirroring technology will become the mainstay, and using a public desktop computer in a meeting room, with people bringing their files on USB flash drives, will become a thing of the past. Is your boss still printing hard copies of the meeting agenda and passing it out prior to the meeting? This is the time to finally start sharing all those forms digitally and have them live on a cloud.
Touchless technology in general will become more standard across the board. For example, if your workplace cafeteria currently doesn’t have a touchless payment system, they likely soon will. Accessible doors will finally gain traction. Automatic doors for bathrooms and meeting rooms have been sold for years in the name of accessibility. Now that they can serve a dual purpose (i.e. accessibility and the prevention of viral transmissions), more companies will implement them.
Business travel, a source of much surface contact (as well as skin contact from all that handshaking), will also be transformed. Most likely we’ll see an overall decrease of it, just like we did after 9/11 and the Great Recession. Teleconferencing is here to stay and it will become much more immersive, eliminating the need for a significant amount of business travel. In-person, physical travel will be reserved for the more essential trips.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, once said “For all of the beauty of technology and all the things we’ve helped facilitate over the years, nothing yet replaces human interaction.” And it’s true. When it comes to effective business communication, nothing will replace human interaction. Rather, human interaction, both in-person and digital, is simply evolving. And this evolution, particularly when it is in response to shifting societal needs, is mostly a good thing.
BREAKING NEWS ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC