Touch behavior nonverbal communication


Haptics- Non verbal communication

Haptics- Non verbal communication

  2. 2. NON VERBAL COMMUNICATION Nonverbal communication is the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless (mostly visual) cues between people. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as body language (kinesics), but nonverbal communication encompasses much more, such as use of voice (paralanguage), touch (haptics), distance (proxemics), and physical environments/appearance.
  3. 3. Haptics  Haptic communication is a form of nonverbal communication and the way by which people and animals communicate via touching.Touch is the most effective means to communicate feelings and emotions.  The withholding of touch may communicate a variety of negative feelings.
  4. 4. Touch in Animals  Gentling – stroking and touching of newborn animals.  Licking – to clean the offspring. Also plays in important role in stimulating the physiological functions of newborn animals and therefore contributes to their survival.
  5. 5. Examples…
  6. 6. Touch in Humans  Tactile communication in the early stages of life may establish the foundation of all other forms of communication that humans later develop.  As one grows older, the frequency of touch decreases.  Touch sometimes help better than verbal communication.
  7. 7. Categories of Touch  Friendship-Warmth Touch – lets another person know we care for, value, and have an interest in her or him. Probably the most difficult to interpret, both for the receiver of the touch and the outsider.  Boys distance themselves from their parents at an earlier age than girls. There is more touching with the same sex parent than with cross-sex parents.
  8. 8. Examples…
  9. 9. Categories of Touch  Professional-Functional Touch – Managers should know the effectiveness of using touch while communicating to subordinates, but need to be cautious and understand how touch can be misunderstood. A hand on the shoulder for one person may mean a supportive gesture, while it could mean a sexual advance to another person  A handshake or a pat on the back.
  10. 10. Examples…
  11. 11. Categories of Touch  Social-Polite Touch – serves to communicate a limited form of interpersonal involvement. We touch another person as more than a mere object.  Blessing some one or meeting in a party or just a casual meeting.
  12. 12. Examples…
  13. 13. Categories of Touch  Love-Intimacy Touch – may include caressing the cheek, holding another person around the waist, hugging, embracing, kissing, and many other gestures that signal a particularly close and involved association between individuals.  Public touch can serve as a ‘tie sign’ that shows others that your partner is “taken”.  Touching between married couples may help maintain good health.
  14. 14. Examples…
  15. 15. Categories of Touch  Sexual-Arousal Touch – often equated with intimate touch. Is the most intense form of touch. It also may be the most communicative.  Hugging- The embrace is the most basic way of telling someone that you love them and possibly need them too.  Kissing- Moving in concert by turning heads to allow for the lips to touch is the final part of the fourth stage of courtship, the kiss.
  16. 16. Examples…

Cultural Differences in Body Language to be Aware of

In much of the Arab world, men hold hands and kiss each other in greeting, but would never do the same with a woman.

In Thailand and Laos, it is taboo to touch anyone’s head, even children. In South Korea, elders can touch younger people with force when trying to get through a crowd, but younger people can’t do the same.

Physical contact variation by culture:

  • High Contact cultures tend to stand close when speaking and make physical contact more often. Latin America, Southern Europe and most Middle Eastern nations are examples.
  • Medium Contact cultures stand quite close when speaking and will touch on occasion. Such cultures include Northern Europe and North America.
  • Low Contact cultures stand at a greater distance and generally avoid physical contact. The Far East is an example.

These rules are usually quite complex. They may differ depending on the age, gender, ethnicity, profession and status of the people involved.

Sitting positions

Be aware of your posture when you attend meetings or are dining. Sitting cross-legged is seen as disrespectful in Japan, especially in the presence of someone older or more respected than you.

Showing the soles of your shoes or feet can offend people in parts of the Middle East and India. That is why throwing shoes at someone is a form of protest and an insult in many parts of the world – as former U.S. President George W. Bush famously discovered on a visit to Iraq in 2008.


Though it can feel like a void in communication, silence can be very meaningful in different cultural contexts. Western cultures, especially North America and the UK, tend to view silence as problematic. In our interactions at work, school, or with friends, silence is uncomfortable. It is often perceived as a sign of inattentiveness or disinterest.

In other cultures, however, silence is not viewed as a negative circumstance. In China, silence can be used to show agreement and receptiveness. In many aboriginal cultures, a question will be answered only after a period of contemplative silence. In Japan, silence from women can be considered an expression of femininity.


In many cultures, what is acceptable for a man may not be acceptable for a woman. The most obvious example is the issue of covering your head in some Muslim countries but also, within religions such as Islam and Hinduism, shaking a woman’s hand can be considered offensive.


Modern transportation and an increase in expendable income allow us to visit a huge range of cultures. We’ve discussed how gestures, eye contact, greetings and physical contact can have very different meanings in different countries and cultures so you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the country’s etiquette, values and styles of communication before you visit.

Being able to understand cultural differences will improve your working relationships and potentially make you more successful in an increasingly globalized, multi-cultural working world.

Popular travel location etiquette guides:

  • Thailand
  • China
  • Japan
  • Britain
  • India
  • Saudi Arabia

The Six Codes of Nonverbal Communication

by Cayla Keiser | published Apr. 26th, 2019

Photo by Olivia Kaiser

You’ve likely been able to tell whether or not your mom is actually upset with you by analyzing her tone of voice, and chances are she knows your reaction by reading the look on your face.

Nonverbal communication is “a process of generating meaning using behavior other than words,” according to the book “Communication in the Real World.”

Dr. Bonnie McCracken Nickels, a visiting lecturer in the School of Communication, said the majority of our language is nonverbal.

“As listeners … we watch, we listen, we observe how people communicate; and that actually tells us a larger amount of what someone is trying to say to us than the words that are coming out of their mouth,” she said.

Nonverbals are essential for creating meaning and are also culturally dependent. Here, we’ll focus specifically on nonverbal communication in western culture.

There are six different nonverbal codes, each of which influences first impressions, our relationships and the overall generation of meaning.


Kinesics refers to the movement of our hands, arms, face and body to convey meaning. It’s how we position ourselves during a conversation or where we look when we are talking. This can communicate our interest and confidence in the interaction. During a job interview, your posture communicates a host of information.

Kari Cameron, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication, said you don’t want to seem too relaxed, or it might communicate overconfidence. But you also don’t want to come off as too stiff or uptight. A happy medium, Cameron suggests, is to lean slightly forward to signal interest.

Eye contact plays a major role in how we are perceived, as well. Keri Barone, another senior lecturer in the School of Communication, said that deliberately maintaining eye contact can be tricky. Some people may stare too much, but others not enough.

“There is no internal process that says, ‘Okay, you’ve reached trustworthy, you’ve now passed trustworthy and now you’re just into creepy,’” Barone said.

It’s not just where you look or how you sit, though.


Haptics is communication by touch. The strength, placement and duration of someone’s touch can communicate anything from empathy to power to how we define a relationship.

Nickels studies immediacy behaviors (the use of touch to communicate empathy and concern) in her research. If seated, a touch on the shoulder or knee from a doctor can show care and empathy for their patients’ situation.

“What my research has particularly found is when you couple socially-supportive messages with nonverbal immediacy behaviors … it actually enhances your supportive message,” Nickels said.

Haptics also influence first impressions. In an interview, a firm handshake is going to readily communicate confidence.

“Whereas sometimes we give what I refer to as … the ‘limp fish’ where just dangly; and from that somebody can read that you’re disinterested or that you have a lot of anxiety,” Cameron said.

Haptics can also help determine relational statuses. You’re likely to spot those who are romantically involved holding hands. Likewise, you could expect this of a parent and their child.

“Really, touch is the gateway to any kind of intimate relationship, be it a friendship, a family member or romantic relationship,” Barone said.

When looking at the way we touch people, the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to touch them in more intimate or personal ways.


The way space and distance influence communication is called proxemics. According to “Communication in the Real World,” there are four kinds of proxemic distances: public, social, personal and intimate. The public space is generally 12 or more feet away from an individual, and the social space is anywhere from four to 12 feet.

“When we couple proxemics with haptics, that’s when we can tell what type of relationship is,” Nickels said. “If they’re really close with one another, if they’re touching one another, if they’re always in each other’s intimate space — you’re going to know that they have that close, intimate bond.”

Personal space is generally around an arm’s length away, according to Nickels. Our intimate distance is reserved for those whom we are closest to. However, where people are in our space is largely contextual, she added.

“If you’re on a crowded bus riding to campus and it’s incredibly full, it’s going to be expected that people are in your intimate space,” Nickels said. ” … But if no one is on that bus, you expect to have that personal space.”

Proximity to others might foster relationships, according to Duck’s Filtering Theory. We use sociological cues, which are demographic factors that determine who you are more likely to come in contact with.

“A forced proximity really can help us to gain comfort and familiarity and eventually friendships,” Cameron said. “I sat next to my husband in class in grad school here, and it was from turning and talking to him in the classroom that we developed a friendship and started dating.”

“A forced proximity really can help us to gain comfort and familiarity and eventually friendships.”

Another aspect of proxemics is territoriality — our desire to occupy and claim spaces as our own. Although there rarely are assigned seats in college, students still gravitate toward the same spot day to day.

“Even to this day it throws you off if you walk into a classroom and you’ve been there all semester, and it’s Week 13 and someone is in your spot,” Barone said.

With proxemics, it’s all about knowing the boundaries of each other’s space.


Vocalics is the study of paralanguage and how we use that to convey meaning.

“Paralanguage is all the ways we can communicate using our voice — it’s these utterances that aren’t necessarily words coming out, but it’s everything else,” Nickels said.

It includes pitch, tone, volume and more. Aside from the words we utter, meaning is based on the change in these paralinguistic factors. Pitch, Nickels said, can frequently work against women.

“The unfortunate gender bias that occurs is that women, because their voice has a higher pitch, tend to sometimes be perceived as less credible,” Nickels said.

As outlined by BBC, studies have shown that people with lower-pitched voices were considered more dominant, whereas those with higher-pitched voices seemed more submissive.

As she stepped into a power role, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to seem more authoritative by working with a vocal coach to lower her vocal pitch, BBC said.

Not only does paralanguage play a large role in how others perceive us, but so does the lack thereof. With Americans under 50 using text-based communication most frequently, according to Gallup, nonverbal communication aspects are lost due to the inability to recognize paralinguistic changes.

“I am always bothered that there are no italics in text yet,” Barone said. “In my friend circle, we do a lot of capitalizing and ridiculous punctuation things. But it’s necessary to add emphasis and to be clear.”

“I am always bothered that there are no italics in text yet … it’s necessary to add emphasis and to be clear.”

Cameron, Nickels and Barone all said they recognize the nonverbal deficit within text communication, and that emojis are one way to reduce this. People are trying to find ways around the deficit, Nickels said, but there is still much room for misinterpretation.


If you have an interview that starts at noon, it’s expected that you arrive sometime between 11:50-11:55 a.m. Any earlier, it could seem like you are putting pressure on the interviewer to come and greet you, Cameron said. Any later, judgments about your character may be made, and they likely won’t be good.

That’s chronemics — how time affects communication.

“People who tend to be on time or early for things may be viewed as more capable or higher achievers, where if you rolled in late all the time, that will be perceived perhaps as a lack of interest, or maybe you’re not doing job effectively,” Cameron said.

If a student is consistently late to class, the professor might think the student is disorganized, lazy or lacks time management, Nickels said.

Time can also communicate power. A CEO can call a meeting for 9 a.m., but if they are late, it’s expected that everyone waits for them to arrive and not question their tardiness, Nickels said. When someone gets pulled over, they are then on the cop’s time. At a doctor’s office, it’s expected that you arrive 15 minutes early, but then it is okay for the doctor to make you wait an hour.

First impressions are made depending on when one shows up, just as they are made by what you arrive wearing.

Personal Presentation and Environment

Personal presentation factors, such as how we dress, communicate to the world who we are and whether or not we are credible, Nickels said.

“Some people would say that it shouldn’t matter what you wear or how you do your hair, but the truth is we are always looking at that and judging people … based on how they’re dressed,” Cameron said.

Most of this has to do with how the receiver interprets your efforts. For a job interview, it’s expected that you are in your most well-groomed state. Anything less than that and the employer might think lowly of you; the same works in the classroom.

“If a professor were to walk in on day one in the beginning of the semester wearing sweatpants, you’re going to immediately make a first impression on that person, and that first impression is going to be pretty stable ,” she said.

“It’s not enough to be effective verbally.”

How a room is set up also influences perception. In a classroom, for example, there are unwritten rules about how it should look. Barone took a class in graduate school about these unwritten rules and found her professor violating them on day one. The professor’s desk was in the middle of the room, and all the student desks faced in the opposite direction.

“She stood on the middle desk with no shoes on,” Barone said. “And we were like, ‘Okay, so who do we call because the teacher’s gone crazy.’ But her point was that … we know how that general configuration is supposed to go and if it doesn’t go that way, it throws off all of our communication.”

“… Women, because their voice has a higher pitch, tend to sometimes be perceived as less credible.”

The ways in which we occupy space and present ourselves might seem unimportant, but it can say more about a person than words ever could.

Becoming a Better Nonverbal Communicator

Becoming an effective communicator, especially nonverbally, doesn’t happen overnight. Nickels said the first step to improving is to internally reflect on how the messages you send are interpreted. Only once you’ve honestly identified your strengths and weaknesses can you begin to improve. Even then, relying solely on yourself to be the judge could be difficult.

“Maybe even take somebody as an outside observer to pay attention to what you’re doing to report it to you because again, we don’t always know what we are doing,” Cameron said.

Barone noted that even simply knowing that you have to constantly adjust when sending and receiving messages can help you improve.

“It’s not enough to be effective verbally,” Nickels said. “People are watching with a keen eye to see how you’re communicating, how you’re relating to other people, how that message is coming out — and that’s what they’re going to take with them.”


Photo by: simonkr

People in the workplace can convey a great deal of information without even speaking; this is called nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication can convey just as much as written and verbal communication, and human beings read and react to these nonverbal signals in the workplace. Body language is nonverbal communication that involves body movement and gestures, which communications researchers call kinesics. There are hundreds of thousands of possible signs that can be communicated through body movements and gestures. In addition to body movements and gestures, the nonverbal cues given through facial expressions and eye contact, personal space, and touch, influence individual interactions in the workplace. While this body language is fairly well understood in general in each culture, there are major cultural differences in nonverbal communication.


Gestures, or movements of the head, hands, arms, and legs can be used to convey specific messages that have linguistic translations. For example, a person might use a wave their hand rather than saying “hello”, or nod his or her head in agreement, which means “yes” or “okay.” These gestures can be very useful in the workplace because they are a quick way to convey thoughts and feelings without needing to speak or write. Additionally, many such gestures are generally widely understood, although they may carry different meanings in other cultures. For instance, although the “ok” sign that is made through touch of the thumb and forefinger with the remaining fingers extended is seen as a positive gesture in the U.S., in some other cultures, this is seen as a vulgar gesture.

In addition to the gestures that people use that have a particular meaning, people also use gestures that do not have specific, generally understood meanings. These gestures, called illustrators, add meaning to a verbal message. For instance, when giving a presentation, a person might use hand gestures to emphasize a point. Many people use gestures while speaking to others to accompany their words, and while these body movements may not have a meaning that can be pinpointed, they serve to embellish a person’s words.

A person’s body movements that convey feelings and emotions through facial expressions and body positions are called affect displays. These body movements may indicate whether a person is open and receptive, angry, distracted, or a number of other emotions. Many affect displays are commonly interpreted; for instance, individuals who sit in a slumped position and frown are believed to be disinterested or unhappy. Those who sit upright, smile, and have raised eyebrows, are seen as interested and happy. While these affect displays are often appropriately interpreted, they may not be related to the interaction with another person, and thus may be misread. For instance, if a person has a terrible headache, he may squint, look down, and grimace during a conversation, indicating to the speaker that he disagrees with her, even if he is receptive to and in agreement with the speaker.

Researchers also categorize certain nonverbal behaviors called adaptors, which are typically unconscious behaviors and are used when a person is tense or anxious. Examples of illustrators are adjusting one’s clothes, biting one’s nails, or fidgeting and toying with an object. Illustrators indicate to others that a person is upset or nervous, and behavior such as this during a job interview or a meeting with a coworker may be interpreted very negatively. A person who engages in such behavior may be seen as preoccupied, anxious, or even as dishonest. As with affect displays, such body language may not convey true feelings; a person who fidgets and bites her nails may be exhibiting such behaviors for innocuous reasons. Thus, while such behaviors are often interpreted correctly as presenting anxiety, they do not necessarily indicate that a person is in any way dishonest.

When listening to others, individuals often convey messages nonverbally. Therefore, care should be taken to avoid the following:

  • Sitting or leaning back is a body movement that may convey disinterest in a speaker’s words or disagreement with the speaker. Additionally, resting your chin on your hand may convey boredom. Conversely, leaning forward slightly, raising eyebrows, and making eye contact indicate that you are receptive to the speaker.
  • Crossed arms often connote a defensive posture, which can indicate that a person is unhappy with the speaker, feels threatened by the speaker, or does not want to listen to the speaker.
  • Adaptors, such as fidgeting or playing with objects, may indicate that you are nervous around the speaker or disinterested in the speaker’s message.


Although facial expressions and eye contact are not kinesics and therefore technically not body language, they are types of nonverbal communication that can have an effect on business relations. Researchers have found that people can identify with great accuracy seven separate human emotions, even after seeing only facial and eye expressions: sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and interest. Therefore, without speaking a word, a facial expression can convey a great deal of information to others. Similarly, eye contact or lack of eye contact can also indicate a person’s attitudes and emotions.

Research indicates that people use four different facial management techniques to control our facial expressions. First, people intensify their facial expressions, or exaggerate them, in order to show strong emotion. For example, a saleswoman who just made a major sale might intensify her positive expression by smiling more broadly and raising her eyebrows. Second, people may deintensify their facial expressions when they control or subdue them. For instance, an employee who just found out that he got a raise might smile less or look less happy after finding out that his coworker did not get a raise. Third, a person neutralizes their expressions when they avoid showing any facial expression. A person might not show any emotion when being reprimanded in the workplace or when attempting to negotiate with another businessperson. Finally, humans mask their facial expressions. This occurs when a person hides his or her true emotions and conveys different emotions. For example, an employee might express enthusiasm to a manager who gives him an undesirable task in order to curry favor with that manager. Or, a customer service representative might express concern and caring in her facial expression, when in actuality she is annoyed by the customer. Each of these facial management techniques makes is possible for people to interact with one another in socially acceptable ways.

Making and maintaining eye contact can have positive outcomes in the workplace. Eye contact can be used to indicate to a person that you are receptive to what they have to say. Additionally, eye contact may indicate that you want to communicate with a person. Finally, eye contact can be used to express respect for a person by maintaining longer eye contact. Interestingly, refraining from making eye contact, such as looking down or away, may indicate a level of respect for someone of higher status. A lack of eye contact, or an unwillingness to maintain eye contact may indicate discomfort with a situation, a disinterest in the other person’s words, or a dislike of the person. However, the degree to which a person does or does not make eye contact may be dependent on their own level of shyness or extraversion and cannot always be interpreted as a reaction to a particular person or situation.


Researchers use the term proxemic to describe the way that a person uses space in communication. Each individual has a personal space, which is like an invisible bubble surrounding them. This bubble becomes larger or smaller, depending on the person with whom we interact. We are comfortable standing or sitting closer to someone we like and more comfortable with someone we dislike or don’t know well standing or sitting at a distance. However, the amount of personal space that a person desires depends on many characteristics, including gender and age.

The personal space that a person prefers also depends on the situation. When interacting with friends, relatives, or conducting casual business, most people prefer a distance of one and a half to four feet. When conducting formal or impersonal business, most individuals prefer a personal space of 4 to 8 feet. Therefore, a person is likely to be more comfortable standing closely to a trusted coworker than to a new customer.

Although there are broad norms for a comfortable personal space, it is not uncommon for a person to feel that their personal space has been violated when another person sits or stands too closely. When personal space is violated, there are several reactions that people might have. First, they may withdraw by backing up or leaving the room. Second, if anticipating the possibility of a personal space violation, a person may avoid having their space violated. This could mean staying away from meetings, crowds, and parties. Third, people may insulate themselves from intrusion of personal space. A manager who puts her desk in her office in such a way that no one can sit near her is insulating. An employee who takes a seat at a the end of a table during a meeting might be doing so to prevent others from sitting near him. Finally, a person may fight to keep his personal space by asking the other person to back up or move away. In a business setting, it may be helpful to recognize the behaviors that others engage in when their personal space is violated. That is, if you notice that others step back from you when speaking, sit at more of a distance, or if they seem physically uncomfortable, they may have a larger personal space, which should be respected.


In the workplace, people may use touch to communicate nonverbally. The functional-professional touch is businesslike and impersonal. The touch that a physician uses when conducting a physical examination is a functional-professional touch. However, touch is not a part of most professions, and thus, this type of touch is not used often in business settings. The social-polite touch, such as a handshake, is much more common. This type of touch is used to recognize other individuals. It is an expected touch in many business settings. Finally, the friendship-warmth touch shows that you value another as a person. A pat on the back or a hug is a friendship-warmth touch. In most workplaces, the social-polite touch is the only necessary touch, and most managers and employees are encouraged to avoid using touch (particularly the friendship-warmth touch) in the workplace. While many people see a hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back as a useful touch to convey encouragement or concern for another’s well-being, sexual harassment fears have made many avoid all types of touch beyond handshakes.


Across the U.S., most body language is consistently understood. However, in other nations and cultures, what is considered to be appropriate body language in one place, may be seen as highly inappropriate in others. As noted above, the American sign for “ok” may be seen as vulgar in other nations. Similarly, other types of gestures and body movements may convey unwanted negative meanings. Therefore, care should be taken before using gestures in other countries or with business partners from other countries. Body movements can also be misinterpreted based on culture. Although most people in the world understand the movement of the head up and down to mean “yes” or “I agree,” this is not the case in all countries.

Norms and expectations regarding facial expressions and eye contact also differ across cultures. Because different cultures have different norms for respect, eye contact that is seen as relationship-building and respectful in the U.S. may be seen as challenging and disrespectful in other cultures.

Finally, personal space and touch are used differently in different nations. Americans tend to prefer larger amounts of personal space than do some Latin Americans, Italians, and Middle-Easterners. Germans, Chinese, and Japanese prefer larger amounts of personal space, similar to what Americans prefer. Thus, when conducting business with people from other cultures, it is important to understand and respect their personal space needs. Americans who do business with those who prefer less personal space may have to fight the urge to step back and therefore avoid insulting a business partner.

SEE ALSO: International Cultural Differences

Marcia J. Simmering


Beall, Anne E. “Body Language Speaks.” Communication World (March/April 2004): 18–20.

Knapp, M, L., and J.A. Hall. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. 5th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Wadsworth, 2002.

Konnellan, Thomas K. “Great Expectations, Great Results.” HRMagazine (June 2003): 155–158.

Ribbens, Geoff, and Richard Thompson. Understanding Body Language. Barron’s Educational Series, 2001.

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A boy laughing as he is tickled

Haptic communication is the means by which people and other animals communicate via touching. Touch is an extremely important sense for humans; as well as providing information about surfaces and textures it is a component of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relationships, and vital in conveying physical intimacy. It can be both sexual (such as kissing) and platonic (such as hugging or tickling).

Touch is the earliest sense to develop in the fetus, and the development of infants’ haptic senses, and how that relates to the development of the other senses such as vision, has been the target of much research. Human babies have been observed to have enormous difficulty surviving if they do not possess a sense of touch, even if they retain sight and hearing. Babies who can perceive through touch, even without sight and hearing, fare much better. Touch can be thought a basic sense in that most life forms have a response to being touched, while only a subset have sight and hearing.

In chimpanzees the sense of touch is highly developed. As newborns they see and hear poorly but they grasp strongly to their mothers. Harry Harlow conducted a controversial study involving rhesus monkeys and observed that monkeys reared with a “terry cloth mother”, a wire feeding apparatus wrapped in softer terry cloth which provided a level of tactile stimulation and comfort, were considerably more emotionally stable as adults than those with a mere wire mother.Template:Harlow,1958

Touching is treated differently from one country to another. Acceptable touch varies by cultural group. In the Thai culture, touching someone’s head may be thought rude. Remland and Jones (1995) studied groups of people communicating and found that in England (8%), France (5%) and the Netherlands (4%) touching was rare compared to their Italian (14%) and Greek (12.5%) sample.Striking, pushing, pulling, pinching, kicking, strangling and hand-to-hand fighting are forms of touch in the context of physical abuse. In a sentence like “I never touched him/her” or “Don’t you dare to touch him/her” the term touch may be meant as euphemism for either physical abuse or sexual touching. To ‘touch oneself’ is a euphemism for masturbation.

The word touch has many other metaphorical uses. One can be emotionally touched, referring to an action or object that evokes an emotional response. To say “I was touched by your letter” implies the reader felt a strong emotion when reading it. Usually does not include anger, disgust or other forms of emotional rejection unless used in a sarcastic manner.

Stoeltje (2003) wrote about how Americans are ‘losing touch’ with this important communication skill. During a study conduced by University of Miami School of Medicine, Touch Research Institutes, American children were said to be more aggressive than their French counterparts while playing at a playground. It was noted that French women touched their children more often than the American parents.

Categories of haptic communicationEdit

The intent of a touch is not always exclusive and touching can evolve to each one of Heslin’s categories.


Managers should know the effectiveness of using touch while communicating to subordinates, but need to be cautious and understand how touch can be misunderstood. A hand on the shoulder for one person may mean a supportive gesture, while it could mean a sexual advance to another person. Working with others and using touch to communicate, a manager needs to be aware of each person’s touch tolerance.

Henley’s (1977) research found that a person in power is more likely to touch a subordinate, but the subordinate is not free to touch in kind. Touch is a powerful nonverbal communication tool and this different standard between a superior and subordinate can lead to confusion whether the touch is motivated by dominance or intimacy according to Borisoff and Victor (1989).

The initial connection to another person in a professional setting usually starts off with a touch, specifically a handshake. A person’s handshake can speak volumes about them and their personality. Chiarella (2006) wrote an article for Esquire magazine explaining to the predominately male readership how handshakes differ from person to person and how they send nonverbal messages. He mentioned that holding the grip longer than two seconds will result in a stop in the verbal conversation, thus the nonverbal will override the verbal communication.

Walton (1989) stated in his book that touching is the ultimate expression of closeness or confidence between two people, but not seen often in business or formal relationships. Touching stresses how special the message is that is being sent by the initiator. “If a word of praise is accompanied by a touch on the shoulder, that’s the gold star on the ribbon,” wrote Walton.


Moving from one haptic category to another can become blurred by culture. There are many areas in the United States where a touch on the forearm is accepted as socially correct and polite, however in the Midwest, this is not always an acceptable behavior.

Jones (1985) explained communication with touch as the most intimate and involving form which helps people to keep good relationships with others. His study with Yarbrough covered touch sequences and individual touches.

Touch sequences fall into two different types, repetitive and strategic. Repetitive is when one person touches and the other person reciprocates. The majority of these touches are considered positive. Strategic touching is a series of touching usually with an ulterior or hidden motive thus making them seem to be using touch as a game to get someone to do something for them.

More common than the sequential touches are the individual or single touches. They must be read by using the total context of what was said, the nature of the relationship and what kind of social setting was involved when the person was touched.

Yarbrough designed a blueprint for how to touch. She designated the different body areas as to whether they are ‘touchable’ or not. Non-vulnerable body parts (NVBP) are the hand, arm, shoulder and upper back, and vulnerable body parts (VBP) are all other body regions.

Civil inattention is defined as the polite way to manage interaction with strangers by not engaging in any interpersonal communication or needing to respond to a stranger’s touch. Goffman (1963) uses an elevator study to explain this phenomenon. It is uncommon for people to look, talk or touch to the person next to them. While it may be so crowded that they ‘touch’ another person, they will often maintain an expressionless demeanor so not to affect those around them.


It is more acceptable for women to touch than men in social or friendship settings, possibly because of the innate nature of the person touching have dominance over who they are touching. Whitcher and Fisher (1979) conducted a study to see whether therapeutic touch to reduce anxiety differed between the sexes. A nurse was told to touch patients for one minute while the patients looked at a pamphlet during a routine preoperative procedure. Females reacted positively to the touch, whereas males did not. It was surmised that males equated the touch to being treated as inferior or dependent.

Touching among family members has been found to affect the behavior of those involved. Various factors are at work within a family setting. As a child grows older, the amount of touching by the parent decreases.

Boys distance themselves from their parents at an earlier age than girls. There is more touching with the same sex parent than with cross-sex parents.

A study of nonverbal communication on how men ‘converse’ in bars shows that women like men to touch, but it is their touching of other men that intrigues them. The men who are touching others are perceived as having a higher status and social power than those that aren’t touching others.

The study found that women were more receptive to men who demanded the most social space, and that when a woman comes into a bar, men will move their drinks far apart to signal to her that they have space in their ‘domain’ for them.


The primary nonverbal behavior that has the biggest effect on interpersonal relationships is touch.

The amount of touching increases as a relationship moves from impersonal to personal

Three areas of public touch between couples have been studied. The amount of touch between a man and a woman in the initial stages of a romantic relationship, how much touching goes on between the couple and the extent of the touching with the amount of touch men and women displayed and who initiated the touch and when they initiated it.

Public touch can serve as a ‘tie sign’ that shows others that your partner is “taken” (Morris, 1977). When a couple is holding hands, putting their arms around each other, this is a ‘tie sign’ showing others that you are together. The use of ‘tie signs’ are used more often by couples in the dating and courtship stages than between their married counterparts according to Burgoon, Buller, and Woodall (1996).

Studies have also shown a difference between the sexes on who touches when. In the initial stages of a relationship, men often follow socially prescribed gender roles. Patterson (1988) indicated that men fulfilling this social role would touch more and after initial touch in casual relationships and as the relationship became more intimate during serious dating or marriage relationships, women would touch more. American culture still dictates that men ‘make the first move’ in the context of a dating relationship.

Touching between married couples may help maintain good health. In a study by University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan, women under stress showed signs of immediate relief by merely holding their husband’s hand. This seemed to be effective when the woman was part of a satisfying marriage.

Touching in intimate relationships may also be violent at times. McEwan and Johnson categorize violent touch in relationships into two categories: intimate terrorism and common couple violence. Intimate terrorism is characterized by a need to control or dominate a relationship, escalation over time, high frequency and severity, and as having patriarchal roots. Common couple violence, on the other hand, is often a result of minor conflict. Common couple violence is less frequent and severe, and does not escalate over time. There are two major differences between intimate terrorism and common couple violence. Common couple violence comes in episodes rather than escalating over time. Also, women are more likely to commit common couple violence, although not more than men (2007). One study in 1999 by Geiser gave further evidence to this notion and reported that in fact males are significantly more likely to engage in nonverbal aggression and violence. Persons seeking help with violent intimate relationships may contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline or The National Violence Prevention Network.


Main article: Sexual arousalFile:Haptaculous.jpg

According to Givens (1999), the process of nonverbal communication or negotiation is to send and receive messages in an attempt to gain someone’s approval or love. Courtship, which may lead to love, is defined as a nonverbal message designed to attract sexual partners. During courtship, we exchange nonverbal communication gestures to tell each other to come nearer and nearer until we touch. Essential signals in the path to intimacy include facial nuzzles, kissing and caressing each other.

Courtship has five phases which include the attention phase, recognition phase, conversation phase, touching phase, and the love-making phase. Haptics takes place more during the last two phases.

The touching phase:
First touch: Is likely to be more “accidental” than premeditated by touching a neutral body part and where the recipient either accepts the touch or rejects it through body movement.

Hugging: The embrace is the most basic way of telling someone that you love them and possibly need them too.

Intention to touch: A nonverbal communication haptic code or cue is the intention behind it. Reaching your hand across the table to a somewhat unknown person is used as a way to show readiness to touch.

Kissing: Moving in concert by turning heads to allow for the lips to touch is the final part of the fourth stage of courtship, the kiss.

The final phase, love-making, which includes tactile stimulation during foreplay known as the light or protopathic touch. Any feelings of fear or apprehension may be calmed through other touching like kissing, nuzzling, and a gentle massage.

Meanings of touchEdit

Touch research conducted by Jones and Yarbrough (1985) revealed 18 different meanings of touch, grouped in seven types: Positive effect (emotion), playfulness, control, ritual, hybrid (mixed), task-related, and accidental touch.

Positive effect touchesEdit

These touches communicate positive emotions and occur mostly between persons who have close relationships. These touches can be further classified as support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual interest or intent, and affection.

Support: Serve to nurture, reassure, or promise protection. These touches generally occur in situations which either virtually require or make it clearly preferable that one person show concern for another who is experiencing distress.

Appreciation: Express gratitude for something another person has done.

Inclusion: Draw attention to the act of being together and suggest psychological closeness.

Sexual: Express physical attraction or sexual interest.

Affection: Express generalized positive regard beyond mere acknowledgment of the other.

Playful touchesEdit

These touches serve to lighten an interaction. These touches communicate a double message since they always involve a play signal, either verbal or nonverbal, which indicates the behavior is not to be taken seriously. These touches can be further classified as affectionate and aggressive.

Playful affection: Serve to lighten interaction. The seriousness of the positive message is diminished by the play signal. These touches indicate teasing and are usually mutual.

Playful aggression: Like playful affection these touches are used to serve to lighten interaction, however, the play signal indicates aggression. These touches are initiated, rather than mutual.

Control touchesEdit

These touches serve to direct the behavior, attitude, or feeling state of the recipient. The key feature of these touches is that almost all of the touches are initiated by the person who attempts influence. These touches can be further classified as compliance, attention-getting, and announcing a response.

Compliance: Attempts to direct behavior of another person, and often, by implication, to influence attitudes or feelings.

Attention-getting: Serve to direct the touch recipient’s perceptual focus toward something.

Announcing a response: Call attention to and emphasize a feeling state of initiator; implicitly requests affect response from another.

Ritualistic touchesEdit

These touches consist of greeting and departure touches. They serve no other function than to help make transitions in and out of focused interaction.

Greeting: Serve as part of the act of acknowledging another at the opening of an encounter.

Departure: Serve as a part of the act of closing an encounter

Hybrid touchesEdit

These touches involve two or more of the meanings described above. These touches can be further classified as greeting/affection and departure/affection.

Greeting/affection: Express affection and acknowledgement of the initiation of an encounter

Departure/affection: Express affection and serve to close an encounter


These touches are directly associated with the performance of a task. These touches can be further classified as reference to appearance, instrumental ancillary, and instrumental intrinsic.

Reference to appearance: Point out or inspect a body part or artefact referred to in a verbal comment about appearance

Instrumental ancillary: Occur as an unnecessary part of the accomplishment of a task.

Instrumental intrinsic: Accomplish a task in and out of itself i.e., a helping touch.

Accidental touchesEdit

These touches are perceived as unintentional and have no meaning. They consist mainly of brushes.

Power and touchEdit

Social psychologists French and Raven developed five categories of power, postulating that power holders rely upon one or more types of power bases to achieve their goals. These bases include legitimate power, referent power, expert power, reward power, and coercive power. Although French and Raven’s power base attributes vary significantly, they each have the common touching characteristics.

Legitimate powerEdit

Power of an individual because of the position they hold. It is a formal power delegated by a higher source. It is more acceptable for these power sources to touch subordinates with a reassuring pat on the shoulder for a job well done. In addition, one establishes legitimate power by shaking hands in a specific manner

Referent powerEdit

Holders possess a more lasting power- the ability to persuade and influence others by simply being likable. Their power is based on charm, popularity, or attractive features. Referent power holders can be identified because they are often hugging friends, patting a coworkers hand for comfort, shaking hands frequently, or flirtatiously touching someone’s arm.

Expert powerEdit

Holders gain their power in an entirely different way. They hold the key to information and are highly sought after based on their skills or expertise. Their power differs from other power bases because it is specific to a profession or industry. These individuals use a lack of touch to assert non-verbal power or may be seen using touch in a condescending manner.

Reward powerEdit

This type of power is contingent on the ability of the power holder to dispense rewards such as raises, vacation, recognition, or promotions. Rewards can also be dispensed with a handshake or pat on the back. Recipients seeking rewards may engage in touch mirroring or ingratiation in an effort to elevate their chances of being well received and, subsequently, the recipient of coveted awards.

Coercive powerEdit

Coercive power is Machiavellian in nature and is the opposite of reward power. Individuals who hold this power can withhold rewards and control others through fear and manipulation. They exert power through bodily insulation or lack of touch, which according to DeVito, Guerrero, and Hecht (1990) “characteristically takes the form of civil inattention and may be occasioned by a subordinate’s inability to repel invasion directly” (p.182). They may use physical or violent touching to exert their control.

Culture and touchEdit

The amount of touching that occurs within a culture is largely based on the relative high context or low context of the culture.

High context cultureEdit

A culture that assumes that its members already know the cultural rules. Expectations do not have to be outlined or specifically verbalized. In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, and cues are given in a subtle manner. High context cultures are prevalent in eastern cultures and in countries where the cultural demographics don’t vary widely. High-context means that “most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.” (Hall, 1976, p 79). High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time. The unchanging culture solidifies rules and expectations throughout time. Members know exactly when to touch and how to touch based on a strict nonverbal commonly understood code. The Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America are examples of high context cultures.

Low context cultureEdit

A culture that communicates societal expectations through words as opposed to inferences or contexts. Low-context communication is “the mass of information is vested in the explicit code” (Hall, 1976 p 70). People from low-context cultures value facts, figures, and candor. Americans and Germans are typically regarded as low context cultures who value the individual in the society.

Country referencesEdit

Non-touching countries: Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Australia

Middle ground countries: France, China, India, Spain

Touching countries: Middle East, Latin America, Italy, Maghreb

Internal cultural differencesEdit

Frequency of touch also varies significantly between different cultures. Harper refers to several studies, one of which examined touching in coffee houses. During a one hour sitting 180 touchings were observed for Puerto Ricans, 110 for French, none for English and 2 for Americans. (Harper, 297). In order to know if someone was touching more frequently than normal it would be necessary to first know what is normal in that culture. In high touch countries a kiss on the cheek is considered a polite greeting while in Sweden it may be considered presumptuous. Jandt relates that two men holding hands will in some countries be a sign of friendly affection, whereas in the United States the same tactile code would probably be interpreted as a symbol of homosexual love (85).

Emotion and touchEdit

Recently, researchers have shown that touch communicates distinct emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sympathy, love, and gratitude (Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, & Jaskolka, 2006). Moreover, the accuracy with which subjects were capable of communicating the emotions were commensurate to facial and vocal displays of emotion (Hertenstein, Verkamp, Kerestes, & Holmes, 2006).

See alsoEdit

  • Cultural Studies
  • Edward T. Hall
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Power (sociology)
  • Bertram Raven
  • Frotteurism
  • Groping
  • Massage
  • Negiah


Borisoff, D., & Victor, D.A. (1989). Conflict management: A communication skills approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., & Woodall, W. G. (1996), Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue (2nd ed.), New York: McGraw-Hill.

Phyllis Davis: The Power of Touch – The Basis for Survival, Health, Intimacy, and Emotional Well-Being

Givens, David B. (2005). Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places, New York: Free Press.

Hall, E. T. The Silent Language (1959). New York: Anchor Books, 1990

Harlow, H. (1958)American Psychologist, 13, 673.

Harper, J. (2006), The Washington Times, “Men hold key to their wives’ calm”, A10.

Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B. Bulleit, B. & Jaskolka, A. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6, 528-533.

Heslin, R. (1974, May) Steps toward a taxomony of touching. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Holden, R. (1993). How to utilize the power of laughter, humour and a winning smile at work. Employee Counseling Today, 5, 17-21.

Jandt, F. E. Intercultural Communication (1995). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Jones & Yarbrough (1985), A naturalistic study of the meanings of touch. Communication Monographs, 52., 19-56.

Morri, D. (1977), Manwatching : A field guide to human behavior. New York: Abrams.

Ashley Montagu: Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, Harper Paperbacks, 1986

Robles-De-La-Torre G. The Importance of the Sense of Touch in Virtual and Real Environments. IEEE Multimedia 13(3), Special issue on Haptic User Interfaces for Multimedia Systems, pp. 24-30 (2006).

Van Swol, L. (2003). The effects of nonverbal mirroring on perceived persuasiveness, agreement with an imitator, and reciprocity in a group discussion. Communication Research, 30(4), 20.

Walton, D. (1989), Are you communicating? You can’t manage without it, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing.

Suggested readingEdit

Hertenstein, M.J. (2002). Touch: Its communicative functions in infancy. Human Development, 45, 70-94.

Leathers, D. (1997). Successful nonverbal communication: Principles and applications. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205262309

Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1572304456.

External linksEdit

  • Touch Research Institute
  • Touch and sexuality
  • Skin hunger
  • BioRobotics Laboratory. Research on Stable Haptic Interaction and Teleoperation

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).

Body Language (Haptics)

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  • Body language is an all-inclusive term referring to nonverbal communication messages involving the human body. It is a part of all face-to-face communication interactions. Body language may be broken down into gestures, facial expressions, other body movements (kinesics), eye contact or eye movement (oculesics), the distance from the body to the receiver’s body (proxemics), or direct contact with another body (haptics). Many scholars also include other physical characteristics that communicate nonverbally about the message sender, such as facial features, hair color and hairstyle, clothing, nail art, tattoos, jewelry, body smell, height, body type, skin color or skin condition (e.g., wrinkles, freckles, moles), or any other characteristics of the sender that a receiver might make meaning of, even when the sender does not intend for the …

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The Power of Touch

You’re in a crowded subway car on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on a city bus. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts.

A toddler in his stroller looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to Mom for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quietly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away—then back to Mom. She takes his hand again: squeeze and release.

A twenty-something in a skirt and blazer sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blonde wisps off her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.

A couple propped against a pole shares messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair.

A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with some elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.

Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal. Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality—touch—seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it. In 2009, he demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”

But touch they did—it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that 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 was surprised,” Hertenstein admits. “I thought the accuracy would be at chance level,” about 25 percent.

Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at communicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. Research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. “Everywhere we’ve studied this, people seem able to do it,” he says.

Indeed, we appear to be wired to interpret the touch of our fellow humans. A study providing evidence of this ability was published in 2012 by a team who used fMRI scans to measure brain activation in people being touched. The subjects, all heterosexual males, were shown a video of a man or a woman who was purportedly touching them on the leg. Unsurprisingly, subjects rated the experience of male touch as less pleasant. Brain scans revealed that a part of the brain called the primary somatosensory cortex responded more sharply to a woman’s touch than to a man’s. But here’s the twist: The videos were fake. It was always a woman touching the subjects.

The results were startling, because the primary somatosensory cortex had been thought to encode only basic qualities of touch, such as smoothness or pressure. That its activity varied depending on whom subjects believed was touching them suggests that the emotional and social components of touch are all but inseparable from physical sensations. “When you’re being touched by another person, your brain isn’t set up to give you the objective qualities of that touch,” says study coauthor Michael Spezio, a psychologist at Scripps College. “The entire experience is affected by your social evaluation of the person touching you.”

If touch is a language, it seems we instinctively know how to use it. But apparently it’s a skill we take for granted. When asked about it, the subjects in Hertenstein’s studies consistently underestimated their ability to communicate via touch—even while their actions suggested that touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.

“With the face and voice, in general we can identify just one or two positive signals that are not confused with each other,” says Hertenstein. For example, joy is the only positive emotion that has been reliably decoded in studies of the face. Meanwhile, his research shows that touch can communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Scientists used to believe touching was simply a means of enhancing messages signaled through speech or body language, “but it seems instead that touch is a much more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions,” Hertenstein says.

It may also increase the speed of communication: “If you’re close enough to touch, it’s often the easiest way to signal something,” says Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, who researches nonverbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University. This immediacy is particularly noteworthy when it comes to bonding. “We feel more connected to someone if they touch us,” Guerrero notes.

There’s no phrase book to translate the language of touch; if anything, experts have barely begun documenting its grammar and vocabulary. “We found that there are many different ways to indicate a given emotion through touch,” Hertenstein notes. What’s more, how a touch gets interpreted is very context dependent. “Whether we’re at the doctor’s office or in a nightclub plays a huge role in how the brain responds to the same type of contact,” Spezio explains. Still, examining some of the notable ways that we communicate and bond through touch (and how we develop the capacity to do so) reveals the versatility of this tool and suggests ways to make better use of it. There’s much to be gained from embracing our tactile sense—in particular, more positive interactions and a deeper sense of connection with others.

Learning the Language of Touch

We begin receiving tactile signals even before birth, as the vibration of our mother’s heartbeat is amplified by amniotic fluid. No wonder then that touch plays a critical role in parent-child relationships from the start: “It’s an essential channel of communication with caregivers for a child,” says San Diego State University School of Communication emeritus professor Peter Andersen, author of Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions.

A mother’s touch enhances attachment between mother and child; it can signify security (“You’re safe; I’m here”) and, depending on the type of touch, it can generate positive or negative emotions. (Playing pat-a-cake makes infants happy, while a sudden squeeze from Mom often signals a warning not to interact with a new object). Mom’s touch even seems to mitigate pain when infants are given a blood test. University of Miami School of Medicine’s Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, has linked touch, in the form of massage, to a slew of benefits, including better sleep, reduced irritability, and increased sociability among infants—as well as improved growth of preemies.

{Read More: The skin is a rich source of information about what we’re thinking and feeling.}

We’re never touched as much as when we’re children, which is when our comfort level with physical contact, and with physical closeness in general (what scientists call proxemics), develops. “The fact that there’s a lot of cultural variation in comfort with touch suggests it’s predominantly learned,” Andersen says.

Warm climates tend to produce cultures that are more liberal about touching than colder regions (think Greeks versus Germans, or Southern hospitality versus New England stoicism). There are a number of hypotheses as to why, including the fact that a higher ambient temperature increases the availability of skin (“It pays to touch somebody if there’s skin showing or they’re wearing light clothing through which they can feel the touch,” Andersen says); the effect of sunlight on mood (“It increases affiliativeness and libidinousness—lack of sunlight can make us depressed, with fewer interactions”); and migratory patterns (“Our ancestors tended to migrate to the same climate zone they came from. The upper Midwest is heavily German and Scandinavian, while Spaniards and Italians went to Mexico and Brazil. That influences the brand of touch”).

What goes on in your home also plays a role. Andersen notes that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious types, “probably because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful.” Tolerance for touch isn’t set in stone, however. Spend time in a different culture, or even with touchy-feely friends, and your attitude toward touch can change.

By the time we’re adults, most of us have learned that touching tends to raise the stakes, particularly when it comes to a sense of connectivity. Even fleeting contact with a stranger can have a measurable effect, both fostering and enhancing cooperation. In research done back in 1976, clerks at a university library returned library cards to students either with or without briefly touching the student’s hand. Student interviews revealed that those who’d been touched evaluated the clerk and the library more favorably. The effect held even when students hadn’t noticed the touch.

More recent studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they’re touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request. Call it the human touch, a brief reminder that we are, at our core, social animals. “Lots of times in these studies people don’t even remember being touched. They just feel there’s a connection, they feel that they like that person more,” Guerrero says.

Just how strong is touch’s bonding benefit? To find out, a team led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Michael Kraus tracked physical contact between teammates during NBA games (consider all those chest bumps, high fives, and backslaps). The study revealed that the more on-court touching there was early in the season, the more successful teams and individuals were by season’s end. The effect of touch was independent of salary or performance, eliminating the possibility that players touch more if they’re more skilled or better compensated.

“We were very surprised. Touch predicted performance across all the NBA teams,” says Kraus. “Basketball players sometimes don’t have time to say an encouraging word to a teammate; instead, they developed this incredible repertoire of touch to communicate quickly and accurately,” he explains, adding that touch can likely improve performance across any cooperative context. As with our primate relatives, who strengthen social bonds by grooming each other, in humans, “touch strengthens relationships and is a marker of closeness,” he says. “It increases cooperation but is also an indicator of how strong bonds are between people.”

If a post-rebound slap on the back or the brush of a hand while delivering a bill can help us all get along a bit better, it may be because “when you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin, you lower stress hormones,” says the Touch Research Institute’s Field. At the same time, warm touch stimulates release of the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, which enhances a sense of trust and attachment.

The release also helps explain our propensity for self-caressing, which we do hundreds of times each day as a calming mechanism. “We do a lot of self-touching: flipping our hair, hugging ourselves,” Field notes. Other common behaviors include massaging our foreheads, rubbing our hands, or stroking our necks. Evidence supports the idea that it’s effective: Self-massage has been shown to slow the heart rate and lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

A Touch of Love

Every evening at bedtime, DePauw’s Hertenstein gives his young son a back rub. “It’s a bonding opportunity for the two of us. Oxytocin levels go up, heart rates go down, all these wonderful things that you can’t see.” Moments like these also reveal the reciprocal nature of touch, he says: “You can’t touch without being touched. A lot of those same beneficial physiological consequences happen to me, the person doing the touching.”

In fact, when we’re the ones initiating contact, we may reap all the same benefits as those we’re touching. For example, Field’s research has revealed that a person giving a massage experiences as great a reduction in stress hormones as the person on the receiving end. “Studies have shown that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as a person being hugged,” she adds.

Moreover, touching another person isn’t just a one-way street when it comes to signaling; aside from sending them a message, it reveals a great of deal information about their state of mind, Hertenstein notes. Are they open to touch or do they pull away? Are they relaxed or tense? Are they warm—or perhaps cold and clammy? “Sometimes I’ll touch my wife and can tell instantly—even if my eyes are closed—that she’s stressed,” he says. “You can sense that through muscle tightness and contraction, and this kind of information can guide our behavior with that person—it influences what we think, how we perceive what they say.”

{Read More: How the physical sensations of objects we touch influence our more abstract feelings.}

Perhaps because touch affects both the person being touched and the one doing the touching, it is one of the most fundamental ways of fostering and communicating intimacy in a romantic relationship. One paper proposed a sequence of 12 behaviors of increasing intimacy that couples generally follow:

After the first three (eye-to-body contact, eye-to-eye contact, and speaking), the remaining nine involve touching (starting with holding hands, then kissing, and eventually sexual intimacy). “Touch functions a bit differently depending on the stage of the relationship,” says Guerrero. “In the beginning, it’s kind of exploratory. Will the other person reciprocate if I touch?” As the relationship progresses, touching begins to spike. “You see lots of public touch,” she notes, “people holding hands the whole time they’re together or with their arms around each other’s shoulders. It signals they’re intensifying the relationship.”

But it would be a mistake to think that the amount of touching couples do continues to follow an escalating trajectory. Research involving observation of couples in public and analysis of their self-reports shows that the amount of touching rises at the beginning of a relationship, peaks somewhere early in a marriage, and then tapers off. Over time romantic partners adjust the amount of touching they do, up- or downshifting their behavior to move closer to their significant other’s habits. Inability to converge on a common comfort zone tends to derail a relationship early on, while among couples in long-term marriages, touching reaches an almost one-to-one ratio.

While couples who are satisfied with each other do tend to touch more, the true indicator of a healthy long-term bond is not how often your partner touches you but how often he or she touches you in response to your touch. “The stronger the reciprocity, the more likely someone is to report emotional intimacy and satisfaction with the relationship,” Guerrero says. As with many things in relationships, satisfaction is as much about what we do for our partner as about what we’re getting.

The Laws of Social Contact

The most important things we reveal through touch: “probably our degree of dominance and our degree of intimacy,” Andersen says. Take, for example, the handshake, one of the few situations in which it’s OK to make prolonged contact with a stranger. As such, it’s an important opportunity for sending a message about yourself. “A limp handshake signifies uncertainty, low enthusiasm, introversion,” Andersen says, while a viselike grip can be taken as a sign that you’re trying to dominate. “You want to have a firm but not bone-crushing handshake,” he advises, since it’s better to be perceived as overly warm than as a cold fish. “We like people to have a kind of medium-high level of warmth,” Andersen says. “A person who touches a lot says, ‘I’m a friendly, intimate person.’ More touch-oriented doctors, teachers, and managers get higher ratings.”

Still, outside of close relationships, the consequences of sending the wrong message also increase. “Touchy people are taking some risk that they might be perceived as being over-the-top or harassing,” says Andersen. “Physical contact can be creepy; it can be threatening.” Context matters, which is why we have rules about whom we can touch, where, and when. “Generally, from the shoulder down to the hand are the only acceptable areas for touch,” at least between casual acquaintances, according to Andersen. “The back is very low in nerve endings, so that’s OK too.”

Of course, there are other contextual considerations as well. Different cultures and individuals have different tolerance levels for touch. Same-sex and opposite-sex touches have different implications. Then there’s the quality of the touch, the duration, the intensity, the circumstances. “It’s a complex matrix,” Andersen says. A quick touch and release—like a tap on a cubicle mate’s shoulder to get her attention—no problem. But a stroke on the shoulder could be easily misinterpreted. (“Most cases of sexual harassment involve stroking touches,” notes Andersen.)

A touch will naturally seem more intimate if it is accompanied by other signals, such as a prolonged gaze, or if it is held an instant too long. Meanwhile, a squeeze on the arm could be a sign of sympathy or support, but if it doesn’t end quickly and is accompanied by intense eye contact, it can come across as a squeeze of aggression. Environment changes things too: On the playing field, a man might feel comfortable giving his teammate a pat on the butt for a job well done, but that congratulatory gesture wouldn’t do too well in the office.

Really, the only rule that ensures communicating by touch won’t get you into trouble is this: Don’t do it. Which is likely what it says in the employee handbook for your workplace. Still, leaving your humanity behind every time you leave home isn’t very appealing. Andersen’s slightly less stringent guidelines for touch: 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.

If there’s a most appropriate time to communicate via touch, it’s probably when someone needs consoling. “Research shows that touch is the best way to comfort,” says Guerrero. “If you ask people how they’d comfort someone in a given situation, they tend to list pats, hugs, and different kinds of touch behaviors more than anything else. Even opposite-sex friends, for example, who usually don’t touch a lot so they won’t send the wrong signals, won’t worry about being misinterpreted,” she says.

Maybe that’s because there are times—during intense grief or fear, but also in ecstatic moments of joy or love—when only the language of touch can fully express what we feel.

Further Reading:

Surface Impact: How the physical sensations of objects we touch influence our more abstract feelings.

What Your Skin Reveals: The skin is a rich source of information about what we’re thinking and feeling—no touch required.

Photos by Henry Leutwyler

Facebook photo: Yeko Photo Studio/

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