Welcome to this guide of how to use touch in your communication.
Why do you need a guide for that? Well while you obviously can manage on your own, the body language of touching is not something very straightforward. Touch means different things to different people: Touch the wrong person, the wrong part of the body or in an improper time and your reputation is at risk, or it's just an invitation for a really awkward moment.
In this 2 parts guide I will do my best to explain the things you need to consider in body language and touching. in context. My aim here is explain the main principles and let you be the judge of how implement it in your life.
In this first part we'll look at the factors that affect who can touch whom, and what types of touch there are, so you can have a better notion of how to interpret and use it.
Touch is a type of communication that based on context. This means that different situations and characters alter the meaning of the touch. A pat on the back can suggest encouragement in one scenario and a signal to get attention in another.
As such - touch is a versatile tool, and we adopt it in many ways in our interactions:
But if we ignore the context or the social codes of the person we touch, we might send an entirely different message from what we intended. Because of that, touching in body language should be avoided until a certain bond and understanding is established.
If we want the message in our touch to pass through correctly to the other party, we need to understand how they think, and how they might perceive it. Of course we cannot predict how they will react, but we can minimize our mistakes by taking into consideration the factors in play.
The factors that determine the "rules" of touching are quite similar to those that affect Proxemics. It's not a surprise, since Proxemics and Haptics are very familiar subjects in nonverbal communication.
Let's review some of these factors and explain them:
Gender plays a big role in determining who's allowed to touch whom. In general females are more comfortable with touching than males, perhaps due to their maternal role. Males usually prefer a brief touch - because otherwise they might feel that their masculinity is at risk.
Just take a look at the contrast between female and male friends. Girls will usually have much more comfort and freedom to touch each other. Guys, however, will immediately start to feel very weird if a hug lasts a second longer, and we will automatically suspect that something is wrong.
When it comes to the touch between the opposite sexes, it's a walk on thin ice, there's always the sexual subtext in the background. Guys have a tendency to interpret female touch (especially when she's attractive) as a sexual advance, whether it's true or not. I think this is because we men are just much less used to touch, so we pick whatever we can get. Male touch often interpreted as powerful, paternal and dominant.
We have our differences
This common distinction between the role of touch in each gender leads to many social misinterpretations. For example, it leaves women in powerful position in quite a dilemma – if they touch their male employees there's a chance that this would be interpreted as sexual advance, and not a display of authority and confidence.
Touching between couples is display of ownership, and it's common for young couples who cling to each other.
Different cultures have different codes when it comes to the amount of touch that is socially acceptable and how it should be done. That's why it's important to check the local customs when visiting foreign countries to avoid offending or be offended by the locals.
For example, if you watched "Gran Torino" (a great movie by the way) you know that in many regions of Asia it’s very inappropriate to touch a person's head, even if it's a child, because the head is considered to be the sacred resting place for the spirit of that person.
The act of touching is usually initiated by active side of the interaction and not vice versa. You touch when:
You rarely touch when you're in a passive or weak position.
Hold still! let me have a look
That's why dominant and authoritative figures usually initiate touch. Because leadership is about action, not sitting by and waiting.
Also, just like in
terms of personal space, touch is related to hierarchy - influential people
have more permission to touch others, due to their position or role. For a lower status to touch a higher status is considered as
inappropriate, sleazy or bold behavior. For example, it's OK for the doctor to touch you to check your organs, but it's not cool for you to touch the doctor.
OK, so we discussed what we can communicate in body language with touching and the factors we need to consider before using it. But how exactly are we gonna implement this in our communication? Do we need to start touching people randomly and hopefully get a positive response?