Saturday, December 11, 2010
Please Do Not Touch
I used to live in a bubble.
Not as a bubble kid with a non-existent immune system; more of a bubble induced by social phobia.
I couldn't let people touch me.
As a senior in high school I played second violin first chair. My stand partner was a scrawny freshman with a mischievous streak a mile wide. Early on he deciphered the "Please Do Not Touch" sign plastered to my forehead delighted in testing the bubble's boundaries.
Index finger extended, he would stare me down and come closer...and closer...and much closer than socially necessary -- at which point, I would lean, step, or sometimes jump out of the way of that extended finger so it couldn't poke me. Sometimes it was a violin bow, or a pencil, or an attempted hug, or any other type of unnecessary contact. Pressure would build up as he tested the boundaries of that bubble and I would literally feel an intense need to move before I was touched at all. He thought it was pretty funny.
My new friends at college pretty much disregarded my "Please Do Not Touch" sign and wrestled me into awkward hugs and administered "good game" butt slaps regularly. By the end of freshman year I was hugging people I didn't know well, high-fiving, and participating in random butt slapping wars.
But I still had a hard time with casual contact. Particularly with the opposite sex.
Over the last few years I've made a study of human touch. Books, magazines, television, movies, objective observation, and experimentation on appropriate levels of casual touch have been wonderful sources for learning the art. Through a list of specific goals and limitations, trial and error, review and adjusting to suit the situation I have managed to figure out a list of socially acceptable points of contact and when to use the power of touch. My findings are expounded upon below:
Why We Touch
There has been extensive research on the biological, psychological, and sociological benefits and need for human to human contact. Infants will fail to thrive; becoming small, sickly, or even regress developmentally or die if not touched on a regular basis. Individuals in nursing homes may experience similar forms of regression and failure to thrive when left alone and denied human contact. Touch is necessary for forming a meaningful attachment to another person and greatly aids communication via non-verbal cues.
In a casual social setting, breaking the touch barrier can be the most powerful tool available for forming lasting friendships, introducing romantic possibilities, or simply helping someone to feel more comfortable. However, touch must be used appropriately at all times since it can also be a very power tool for exciting an unwanted emotional response -- positive or negative.
Where to Touch
There are three main areas of appropriate physical contact for casual touching:
3.) Knee cap
The shoulder and elbow joints can be gently patted or briefly grasped during a standing conversation. A gentle tap of the knee may be appropriate during a seated conversation. While it would be inappropriate to reach down and pat a person's knee during engaged in standing conversation, it is perfectly acceptable to grasp the elbow or tap the shoulder while seated.
Wondering hands, prolonged contact, or misplaced hands can be very uncomfortable for both parties. For instance, if a touch is aimed at the knee cap but ends up on the lower thigh, the recipient of such a touch might feel as though they just had a near miss with being groped and discontinue conversation. Likewise, a person who gently grasps the elbow but then continues to rub the length of the arm may be perceived as a clingy hanger-on with no sense of personal space.
A person may extend touch several times during the course of a conversation, but ought to be aware of the frequency and the mood of the recipient so as to avoid an over-touching situation.
When to Touch
Touch should always be accompanied by direct eye contact and ought to be used sparingly as a physical punctuation or cue to communicate a sense of personal closeness or reassurance during verbal communication. Although touch is a great non-verbal cue it should only be used in conjunction with good verbal and listening skills. In short: casual touch cannot be extended by a silent lurker -- that would be considered a startling ninja attack touch at best, or a creepy caress with stalker undertones.
For a casual touch, the extender ought to reach out in as casual manner as possible so as to limit the opportunity for awkwardness after the touch. One should never stretch or over-reach for a touch. If the extender is too far from the intended recipient, the extender ought to move in a little closer, while maintaining an appropriate distance for optimal personal space satisfaction. A horrifying mistake for casual touch is to make it appear too wooden or premeditated. Don't worry, it just takes practice. If this is an area in which you feel lacking, simply practice with a mother, good friend, or department store mannequin as these people will not judge you too harshly for bumbling.
Touch is a necessary part of human communication but ought to be reserved for socially acceptable situations and performed in an socially acceptable manner. Briefly touching the shoulder or elbow is fine for standing conversations and a brief pat of the knee is allowable for seated conversations. All touching should be accompanied by direct eye contact and good conversation skills. If a person feels they are lacking in the eye contact or good conversation skills departments, supplemental material may be acquired from Erda Girl on these topics or practice with a mother, good friend or department store mannequin may be implemented.
So, I don't know how informative that was, but it sure took me a long time to figure out and define. Years, actually. There have many instances of awkward casual touching on my behalf -- both extending and receiving.
Oh, the stories I could tell...
It seems now, however, that my "Please Do Not Touch" sign has been replaced by a much more inviting "Please Smile, It Will Brighten Both Our Days" sign.