In Part 1 of our series about human contact, we uncovered the numerous positive effects of non-sexual human touch, both to ourselves and the person with whom we’re connecting. Students, patients, men, women, children, adults, the elderly–we can all benefit from the health and wellness boost that comes from physical contact….interestingly enough, evidence exists that NBA players who touch their teammates more even win more basketball games!
With all of this evidence, you might wonder why we don’t touch each other more often. When did reaching out to touch someone in a warm and friendly manner become an abnormal behavior in our society, instead of being a natural part of life? Or, perhaps there’s a good reason why we started keeping our hands to ourselves….
Are We Afraid of Human Contact?
According to the American Bar Association, in 2013 there were 1,268,011 lawyers practicing in the United States or about one lawyer per 250 people. In the Boston Globe, a quote from Philip K. Howard, an attorney and reform advocate, puts things in perspective:
“It would have been inconceivable, a few years ago, for a teacher to be scared to put an arm around a crying child, or for a fireman to stand on the beach for an hour and watch a man drown because he had not been recertified for land-based rescue. Creeping legalisms are eating away at America’s social capital.”
While we as a nation, unfortunately, aren’t topping the charts for being first-rate in education, healthcare, or environmental protection, there is one area which we do undoubtedly come out on top. Taking the number one spot, the United States is the country with the most lawyers per capita and ranks as number five in the countries with the most lawsuits per capita. Perhaps there’s a connection between our nation’s proclivity to sue one another and our fear of human touch.
In a study conducted in the 1960’s, Sidney Jourard observed the conversation of friends as they sat in a cafe. Though he observed each group for the same duration, his observations took him to a number of different countries with a huge range of results. In England, the two friends touched each other zero times. In the US, they touched each other twice. In Europe, the friends touched 110 times per hour, and in Puerto Rico, 180 times per hour!
Interestingly enough, Puerto Rico also consistently ranks highest in Gallup-Healthways Country Well-Being report which measures well-being across five areas: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. According to their research, people with the highest levels of well-being enjoy “higher productivity, lower healthcare costs, are more resilient in the face of challenges and are more likely to contribute to the success of their organizations and communities.”
However, regardless of the reason for this disparity in his findings–whether it be a fear of rejection, bacteria, litigation, or anything else– one thing is for sure. As Americans, we are allowing our fear to rob us of the proven and substantial feel-good benefits of human contact.
The Rules of Reaching Out
Now that you have (potentially) opened your mind to the incredible benefits of human touch, you may be excited to embrace the art of reaching out warmly to connect with your fellow man. But, we, of course, don’t recommend that you start hugging every stranger you meet. To get a barometer on acceptable touch, what should you do?
(But wait. What if you’re the one who doesn’t like to be touched? Then, what? The simple answer: If you aren’t comfortable with physical touch, that’s perfectly okay, too. We must all learn to respect each other’s differences and sensitivities. One thing to note: Please clearly communicate your disinterest. Let the other person know in a kind manner that you aren’t much of a “hugger” or that you’re a total germaphobe. And, if someone touches you inappropriately, that’s not okay…here’s a guide that can help.)
Of course, concerns with overstepping people’s personal boundaries or fear of being accused of inappropriate touch (i.e., sexual harassment) can be a major barrier to increasing our amount of personal contact. To safeguard yourself from awkward encounters, follow these three bits of advice:
Start in your inner circle. Instead of focusing on reaching out to strangers, why not start in your circle of close friends? These relationships are the most realistic scenarios where we can begin gradually integrating higher frequencies of human contact into our daily lives.
Be cautious in your place of employment. Avoid workplace touch unless you’re extremely confident that your behavior will not be misinterpreted. Even in workplace scenarios, there are situations that could call for human contact–such as giving a hug t0 someone leaving the company or retiring–but you want to be careful in how your behavior may be perceived. (According to Psychology Today, most cases of sexual harassment involve stroking touches. The article continues, “Outside of your closest relationships, stick to the safe zones of shoulders and arms (handshakes, high fives, backslaps), and in the office, it’s always better for a subordinate, rather than a superior or manager, to initiate.)
Read the signals. If you take time to notice the other person’s body language, you can gain a wealth of knowledge about what they’re comfortable with. By gauging their signals, you can avoid a potentially embarrassing scenario. On the other hand, be aware of the signals you’re putting out. Prolonged or intense eye contact has the potential to make someone quite uncomfortable outside of your most intimate relationships.
Read this chart. A survey of more than 1,300 people conducted by both Oxford University and Finland’s Aalto University asked participants where they were comfortable being touched and by whom. Take a look at their chart to get an idea but, again, always be aware of respecting each individual’s comfort level. One notable takeaway: The majority of women told researchers that “the only part of their body they were comfortable with male strangers touching were their hands.”
How has reaching out to touch someone else touched your life?