We all follow implicit rules that dictate when and how to touch other people. It’s something we rarely talk about, and even the phrase “touch people” is something of a perversion or a corny spiritual platitude.
But the fact is, touch is an integral part of human interaction. When to touch someone and when not to touch someone is far more complex than the simple debate over unwanted physical contact.
There is no universal guidebook that can tell you when it’s acceptable to touch another human being. The rules change according to cultures, ages, group dynamics, and individual preferences. The easiest option to navigate this complicated socialization is to go about life giving people handshakes or cursory hugs. But then we miss out on the non-romantic intimacies that our friends and acquaintances can offer.
What I want to say is that human beings were made to touch other human beings. In fact, children who are deprived of sympathetic touch often develop anxiety disorders. Touch pressure receptors in the brain increase hormones like oxytocin and reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, physically touching your friends while interacting with them also makes you feel more connected on an elemental level. It affirms the physical presence of the other human being in front of you and establishes a closeness that could physiologically make you happier.
We as a culture are far too stingy with our physical shows of affection. Physical affection has mostly been relegated to the sphere of sexual or romantic relationships. There is always the fear that touch will be misconstrued in some unintended way.
Take for example, Hilary Duff’s Instagram picture in which she kisses her four-year-old’s lips. Certain Instagram users interpreted this innocent gesture as a perversion. This is because we are used to associating certain types of touching with romantic relationships. Think of “Pretty Woman” and its emphasis on the association of romantic feeling with a kiss on the lips. A kiss on the mouth certainly can elevate a romantic relationship, but there is no hard and fast biological rule that dictates that a kiss on the lips needs to be romantic.
There are subtler types of touch that can also be interpreted as bizarre or odd if not in the context of a relationship. Holding hands is always a tricky one for most people. I have often held hands with my girlfriends in a platonic, caring context. As a heterosexual female, I feel that it is easier for me to do this without any anxiety that my touch will be misunderstood. When it comes to holding hands with my platonic, male friends, it becomes slightly more complicated, depending on how close I am with this friend and whether he interprets it the same way I do. The situation also matters. For example, holding hands to comfort someone in a time of grief is socially acceptable, but casually holding hands without some sort of irony might prompt a romantic interpretation of the relationship.
Cultural context is also a factor. To use my own example, I am Indian-American and my parents raised me with the belief that women should not touch men unless they are relatives or significant others. If this notion weren’t tempered by American culture, I would feel more uncomfortable with initiating physical contact with people of the opposite gender. That said, some part of my Indian upbringing influences the way that I interpret physical contact with men. I might not be as quick to be physically comfortable with someone as I would be if I were socialized to regard touch with the opposite sex as merely a part of any human relationship.
In our American society, men grow up in a binary between homosexual and homosocial (non-sexual relationship between two men). Either you touch other men in a sexual manner or you don’t touch other men at all. In reality, this binary is not nearly this black and white. Men touch each other, whether in the form of handshakes, pats on the back, claps on the shoulder, or even a hug. Yet, many men fear a homophobic backlash if the touch is intimate – like a platonic kiss on the lips or holding hands.
This type of binary isn’t nearly so clear in different cultures. In India, it is not uncommon to see two men, entirely secure in their heterosexuality, walking in public with linked fingers. When men talk among themselves, they often hold the other’s hand or arm and are not afraid to lean into the other’s personal space. Clearly, the conception of what kind of touch is acceptable is malleable. What is platonic in one culture is romantic in another culture.
Personally, I believe that the more touch, the more human connection. We should all learn to be more comfortable in our bodies so initiating touch becomes second nature rather than a complicated social formula. Two people who care for each other should feel comfortable initiating physical contact, regardless of the social context.
Most humans have a desire to connect with other human beings, whether through technology, stories, or physical encounters. Meaningful conversations make me feel connected. Touching another person makes me feel connected. And I think that we all should feel comfortable touching a whole lot more than our culture allows.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokonon would say, let’s boko-maru?
Bhaamati Borkhetaria is a sophomore from Jersey City, NJ. She can be reached at email@example.com.