How touching a person’s elbow increases your chances of getting what you want

people shaking hands while one touches the other's elbow

The next time you shake hands with a person, reach out with your left hand and lightly touch their elbow or palm while shaking, repeat their name to confirm that you have heard it well and watch their reaction. Not only does this make the person feel important, but it also allows you to memorize the person’s name. Read on to see how appropriate non-verbal communication can maximize your chance of getting what you want from the overall conversation.

To touch or not to touch

Touching a person with your left hand while shaking with the right can lead to productive results

Researchers from the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment that came to be known as a “phone boot test”. They put a coin on a shelf in a telephone booth and then hid behind a tree and waited for the uninitiated respondents to come inside and find it. If that happened, one of the researchers would approach the respondent with the words: “Did you not accidentally see a coin I forgot in the booth? I have to make a phone call again, and I have no more coins”. Only 23% of respondents admitted finding a coin and returning it to the owner. 

In the second part of the study, the coin was again left in the telephone booth, but as they approached the people who took it, the researchers lightly touched their elbow for no more than three seconds and then asked them for a coin. This time, 68% of them admitted to taking it, acting ashamed and saying things like “I was just looking back to see whose it is”.

There are three reasons for the success of this technique: 

  • first, the elbow is considered a public space and away from the intimate parts of the body; 
  • second, touching an unknown person is not considered acceptable in most countries, so it leaves an impression; and 
  • third, a light touch that lasts all three seconds creates an instant connection between the two. 
two people on a romantic dinner

When the experiment was repeated for a television show, the researchers found that the percentage of coin returns varied from culture to culture, depending on the normal frequency of touching at some point. 

For example, after touching the elbow, the coin was returned by 72% of Australians, 70% of Englishmen, 85% of Germans, 50% of Frenchmen and 22% of Italians. 

These results show that touching the elbow works better where frequent touching is not a cultural standard. 

Researchers recorded the frequency of touch among people in coffee shops in many countries they regularly visit and recorded 220 touches per hour in Rome, 142 touches per hour in Paris, 25 touches per hour in Sydney, 4 touches per hour in New York and 0 touches per hour in London. 

This confirms that the more mentally British or German you are, the less likely you are to touch others and the likelihood of successful touching your elbow by another person increases. If you are German or British descent, it is easier to “touch” than anyone else. Overall, they found that a woman was four times more likely to touch another woman in this way than a man would touch a man.

In many places, touching an unfamiliar person below or above the elbow does not produce the same positive results as directly touching the elbow and often provokes negative reactions. Touching for more than three seconds also provokes a non – combustible reactions, with the person suddenly looking down at your hand to see what you are doing. 

More benefits: With a little bit  of human touch

In the second experiment, librarians were asked to lightly touch the borrower’s hand when handing out a book.

Outside the library, lenders were surveyed and were asked about their impressions of the library’s services. Those who were touched by librarians responded more favorably to the jokes and to a greater extent managed to remember the name of the library.

Studies conducted in British supermarkets, where customers are lightly touched by hand when returning the items, showed similar positive customer reactions. 

The same experiment was conducted in the United States, with the waitress hiring a larger portion of the proceeds from tips from restaurant visitors. Waitresses who in the course of serving or billing briefly touched the hand or elbow of male visitors received 36% more tips from them than the waitress who did business without touching; male waiters increased their earnings by 22% regardless of the gender they touched.

two men shaking hands

Everything you touch can turn to gold

Whenever possible, it is fine to use this channel of non – verbal communication, especially when we are meeting a new person, a person we want to show respect for, or that we especially care about. Touching a person’s elbow and arm – provided it is discreet – attracts attention, compels comment, underlines the concept, increases your impact on others, makes you more striking and leaves a positive impression on everyone.

This article was written by Ana Paunović,
psychologist and an HR manager @ RCMT IT Europe

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