How many times have you been touched today?
Do you know? Probably not; it’s not something that we normally keep track of. How about this, instead: Was there any one particular touch that stands out in your mind?
Here, I’ll start: I remember quite vividly hugging my eldest daughter as I left her to finish cleaning her old house. I also remember pretty clearly the touch of hugging my middle daughter after I dropped her off at her house. I also pretty vividly remember the touch of Natasha’s forehead against mine just before she left to run errands.
That’s three touches right there, and at the risk of humblebragging I have to say that it’s a good example of how lucky I am. I can think of three touches just today that were reinforcing loving relationships. Touch is a universal language, as it turns out – with an amazingly high ratio of signal-to-noise. In fact, during an experiment at DePauw University in 2009 psychologist Matthew Hertenstein was surprised at just how well it worked, considering we live in what he calls a “touch-phobic society”:
…for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so. Participants communicated eight distinct emotions—anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness—with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent.
I can tell you from classes about negotiation and communication that a 78% accuracy rate is something that is amazing.
Now that I’ve diverted long enough, I’ll ask again: can you think now of touches you’ve had? And if so, were they loving? Or at least supportive?
If not…then you may want to look at changing some things about your environment. No, not because you need love – because you need touch. Read the rest of the Psychology Today article to see all the hard data why; that’s not the point of this post. Rather, I’d like to work on some “practical tips to make hard times touchier”.
OK, as slogans go, that may not be the best. But bear with me.
Touching on Consent and Safety
Why is America such a touch-phobic society? And I mean genuine touch, not the bro-hug kind of thing or the fake-kissy-kissy that are all the rage. There may even be people who are reading this post saying “Gray, like your stuff, but there ain’t no way I’m letting people touch me!”
And that brings up the question: why? What are you afraid of? What are they afraid of?
Here’s a quick list, off the cuff:
- Fear of assumed intimacy: If I let them touch me, they’ll think they can do more.
- Fear of assumed interest: If I let them touch me, they’ll think I’m after more than just touch.
- Fear of mistaken identity: If I touch them, people might think I’m gay/straight/weird/a dancer.
- Fear of triggering: If I touch them, it may remind them of some other person who touched them that they didn’t like.
- Fear of awkwardness: If I touch them, I may touch them too long/too short and make them feel uncomfortable/rejected.
- Fear of rejection: If I touch them, they may recoil and say “Excuse me, WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING ME?“
…and let me say, all of those fears are completely valid. Entirely possible. In a world where there can be entire articles written about whether men can/should/would touch each other, where that article stipulates that “…due to rape culture and historic narratives of gender domination, this sort of protected border is necessary”, it makes sense to have these concerns.
And yet, there is still that very primal need for touch. For the hug, the handshake, the standing-shoulder-to-shoulder, the high-five and the fist-bump. How do you meet that need? How do you fulfill that need for the people who are important to you?
The Power of the ?
It’s simple enough: ask. Don’t assume, ever, that it’s ok to touch someone – but equally, don’t assume that they don’t want to be touched. It’s as simple as holding out your hand, or spreading your arms and eyebrows and inquiring “Hug?” And if someone replies by looking uncomfortable, or mumbling “I don’t do that kind of thing…“, then you simply smile and say “OK.”
That’s the important part. One of the most needed skills out there (aside from touching) is the skill of accepting a “no” gracefully. It’s not a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of that one single action…well, ok, it might be a rejection of you, but let’s assume charitable intentions and good personal hygiene. And what you’ve done is let this person know that if/when they are ready for touch, you are someone who will not only be willing but also someone who will respect their boundaries without prejudice.
See that? Fears 1-6, countered with the simple act of not taking something personally. In the occupation of contact improv dancers move on and over and under and sometimes seemingly thru each other’s bodies in ways that seem amazingly intimate to the unfamiliar observer. To the point where the mother of my then-fiancee, watching me dance with my teacher Jin-Wen Yu, worriedly whispered to my wife-to-be “Are you sure he’s not gay?”
I’m not – though I’ve always disliked Indiana politics – but I understand why she thought so. In her mind, that kind of touch must have had a sexual component. It didn’t, whether I was dancing with Jin-Wen or with my wife – it was dancing. A great way to get touch within boundaries that are set and clear and easy to navigate.
That’s the message for the weekend: touch. I’d love to hear what kinds of touch you find in you world, and that’s what comments are for!