The Power of Touch

by Michael Haberman on January 21, 2011 · 0 comments


I have just read a good book called The Devil in the White City. It is about America’s first identified seriel killer, and possibly the most notorious. One of the things that was constantly mentioned about this psychopath was that he put everyone at ease by his touch, his manner of speaking and his innocent gaze, but in particular his touch. That got me thinking about the power of touch.

If you do a search on the power of touch you get alot of stuff about the healing power of touch. I am not talking about that. But I am talking about the social connectivity that comes with a touch. In my search I came across a blog post by Michael Maslanka, a Texas lawyer, who writes Work Matters. Mr. Maslanka talks about research that shows that light touching on the arm increased the likelihood that an offer of a dance was accepted instead of rejected.

Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, also show that elbow touching waitresses made 36% more tips from male diners than non-touching waitresses and male waiters increased their earnings by 22% regardless of which sex they touched. Bob Sutton also talks about the power of non-sexual touching in a blog post about NBA players and how touching makes them play better as a team. (Read more here)

In HR, especially recruiting, we talk about types of handshakes. Good ones, poor ones, sweaty palm ones, limp ones, etc. The Peases found that one of the most effective ones, one that makes you more memorable, is one where you lightly touch the person’s elbow with your left hand as you shake with your right hand. The say that “Elbow- and hand-touching – when done discretely- grabs attention, reinforces a comment, underlines a concept, increases your influence over others, makes you more memorable, and creates positive impressions on everyone.”

Research by Geert Hofstede shows, however, that it doesn’t work for everyone. There are cultural dimensions to touching and its effectiveness. The Peases show that cultures that don’t normally touch (Germans and English) are more susceptible to elbow touching than are cultures that are high touch (Italians and French.)

Remember, however, that generally humans are social creatures, even employees and applicants. And as social creatures we respond to social signals and they can have a strong influence. Touching is one of the strongest social signals. Use it wisely. Our attorney Michael Maslanka admonishes his attorney readership that “The bottom line from all this: Lawyers should remember that they, their clients and their employees are social creatures, no more so than at work.” The same advice should be heeded by human resources professionals as well.

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