Touching, Social Philosophy

The Social Psychology of Touching: Exploring Norms,

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Stigmas and the Need for Human Connection

Physical contact with another human being, often involving intent, otherwise known as “touch” is a distinctly human features that allows humanity to move far beyond its animal tendencies into a realm that allows us to connect on an emotional level. As human beings, we come into the world craving the touch of another human being, and this desire lasts throughout our lives. As infants, we reach towards our mothers. As children, we desire the touch of a parent as they wipe away tears or tend to a cut. As teens we hold hands or engage in a first kiss. As adults, we engage in sexual intercourse which brings with it an unparalleled sense of intimacy. As grandparents, we hold our grandchildren, and on our deathbeds, we reach for a hand to hold as we pass out of this world.

While touching remains a major part of the human existence, it brings with it many different stigmas and norms that change as one travels from place to place. For instance, touching in the social realm varies significantly from mechanical contact in the physical realm. Different societies prescribe far different rules when it comes to touching. An inadvertent touch is nothing compared to touch that carries intent, but can be considered offensive in certain contexts. Above all, it must be understood that touch, dependent upon the situation it exists within, can involve many different attributes such as love, lust, power, fear, etc. In beginning to understand the many facets of touch, one must understand what scholars and laymen alike continue to argue on the topic in a world of increased technology and decreased physical human interaction.

The Nature of Touching

As mentioned previously, touching involves the bodily connection of two individuals, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. As human beings, we are constantly using nonverbal signals when in the presence of others. Research has found two important points regarding the nonverbal behavior found in human encounters: 1. While we are in the presence of another person, we are constantly giving signals about our attitudes, feelings, and personality; 2. Others may become particularly adept at sensing and interpreting these signals, which often involves or leads to touch (Hall and Knapp, 2007, pp. 24). Such nonverbal communication often alludes specifically to individual emotions, and the ability to touch often allows an ability to make individuals more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Take, for example an individual waiting patiently in a doctor’s waiting room for the results of a serious blood test. While the doctor enter the office and verbally express the negative results of that test to the patient, giving them an all-clear, the quick patting of that patient’s shoulder when entering the room can signal the all-clear before the doctor utters the words (Connor and Howett, 2009, pp. 128).

This ability to interpret such nonverbal communication is the very essence of human touch, and the ability to connect on this level is often taught from infancy. As infants and children, we are taught the intricacies of human behavior through observation and most importantly, interaction. Touch is one of the most important factors of our infancy that will shape our future. For instance, research has found that institutional isolation (often found in second and third world orphanages) does not allow children the ability to engage with touch, and therefore with emotional engagement (Harmon, 2010, pp.1 ). For these children, where touch has been eliminated since infancy, the risk of behavioral, emotional and social problems as an adult significantly increases.

This type of lapse in growth and development can be eliminated through the fostering of touch and open communication as early as infancy. For example, for an infant, a mother’s consistent touch not only reduces stress in the baby but opens the lines of infant-mother communication, which will increase as the child grows up and begins interacting outside of the home (Feldman, Singer and Zagoory, 2009, pp. 271; Feldman, Ferber and Makhoul, 2007, pp. 364). In viewing this research, it becomes exceedingly clear that in order to use touch on an emotional level, which is a function of humanity that serves to set us apart from animals, touch and its ability to link to our inner emotions must be kept in the forefront of child development.

It is this link to emotion that sets touch apart from other nonverbal communication. Psychologists have long studied the grunts and winks of nonverbal communication which are “the vocal and facial expressions that carry emotion” (Carey, 2010, pp.1). However such an observation cannot lead us nearly as close to true emotion as the observation of touch can. For instance, a warm tone of voice and a hostile stare both have the same meaning in Terre Haute or Timbuktu, and these are a mere few amongst dozens of signals that form human vocabulary (Carey, 2010, pp.1). Touch, on the other hand, while nonverbal, is essentially the first language we as humans learn. As mentioned previously, a soft touch from a mothers hand to a baby’s face means more to that infant and his or her development than any utterance of an unknown language could possibly mean. Momentary touches, research suggests, whether “an exuberant high-five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm” communicate an even wider range of emotion than any gesture, expression, or even word can do (Carey, 2010, pp.1).

Cultural Differentiation

Just as the aforementioned expressions in Terre Haute and Timbuktu allude to differences in different cultures and different languages and expressions, so can touch mean many different things in viewing the different cultures of the world. In the United States, individuals think nothing of walking into a business meeting and shaking the hands of many other individuals in the room despite having never met each other. In a crowded American bar, natives think nothing of placing a hand on an adjacent person’s shoulder as they pass behind them. After bumping into someone in a crowded store or supermarket, it is not uncommon for the American individual who is in the wrong to place a hand on the other person’s hand or elbow while apologizing. However, these “standards of practice” while commonplace in the United States, say nothing about their respective effects throughout the world.

For instance, the aforementioned handshake is common to many cultures, but has its own set of discrepancies. In the U.S. individuals favor a firm, paused handshake. Rather in parts of Northern Europe, a quick “one-pump” handshake is the norm (Diener, 2009, pp.1). In parts of Southern Europe and Central and South America, the handshake is much longer and “warmer” often including clasped hands or the touch of an elbow, where in Turkey, a firm handshake is considered rude or aggressive (Diener, 2009, pp.1). In certain African countries, a limp handshake is standard while men in Islamic cultures will under no circumstances shake the hand of a woman outside of their own family (Diener, 2009, pp.1). In understanding the differences in touch as simple as a handshake, one can understand how facets of touch which are more intimate, ranging from a hug to sex can have many different norms dependent on one’s geographical location, and touching in any manner considered inappropriate within that geographical location can bring with it a strong stigma. Additionally, while touch and its repercussions vary from nation to nation, so do they vary from person to person.

Touching and Human Emotions

In different individuals, touch can bring upon feelings of happiness, sadness, and even fear. For instance, while an individual with a pleasant home life and personal history may favor a hug or even a kiss from friends and family members upon meeting them during any occasion, for others, these measures of touch, no matter how innocent, may bring back painful memories from their past. An individual who has been assaulted, molested or raped during their life may find the thought of unwarranted contact with another human being to be repulsive. In cases such as this, the individual doing the touching is often caught off guard when they observe the touched person’s reaction. In this capacity, while touch allows human beings to grow closer personally and emotionally, one must always remember boundaries in any personal situation.

For instance, during my first semester of college, a group of friends and myself were finishing a friendly pick-up basketball game. Soon enough, the game ended and a member of the winning team slapped the rear-end of a losing team member. Though this individual had done the same to the other losing members which exuded nothing but laughter and simple self-defense, the final individual became withdrawn, upset and near tears. For individuals who have experienced a trauma in their past, even the threat of being touched can bring upon severe stress, increased heart rate, and other symptoms of PTSD (Adenauer, et al., 2011, pp. 214 ). Even something as non-threatening as a mother breastfeeding a new born, for women who have been sexually assaulted, can be a seriously traumatic occurrence. For women, breastfeeding has the ability to bring back the shame of an attack or an occurrence of unwanted touching (Wood, 2010, pp. e137).

Additionally, the idea of sexual activity, for an individual who has experienced trauma and fear touch, can become an incurable fear should it not be addressed. For an individual who has suffered this type of trauma, an unsolicited touch from another human being as simple as a hand on their shoulder can bring back vivid memories of the trauma as well as the ability to place that individual right back into the emotional state of the trauma (Hatfield, 1994, pp.1). This type of situation is key to understanding personal boundaries despite the need for touch in the realm of humanity.


As seen in viewing the many facets of touch within humanity and the direct link to emotion that touch can provide for individuals, one can begin to understand how personal and subjective the notion of touch can be throughout the world and across cultures. While for so many of us, touch provides us a feeling of safety and calm, for others it brings about a feeling of fear and discomfort. In understanding the ability for touch to draw out such intense emotions, one must become familiarized with the cultural and personal standards which touch brings out in humans. In understanding the basic nature of touch, its ability to connect and divide, along with the cultural norms and stigmas that touch brings about throughout the world, one can immediately garner that touch is not as simple as it may seem at first glance.


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