Recently, upon leaving an event, I reached my arms out in an open fashion, inviting a hug to say goodbye to a family friend. I waited to see if the person would respond to my nonverbal invitation. Indeed, she did—moving in with an open posture towards me, she leaned in, and we began to embrace. However, as the receiver of this hug, I felt the person hollow her torso backwards in her body, move sideways, and barely make physical contact with me. Then, she gave me a gentle pat on my back that I perceived as her nonverbal message that she was ready to separate from the embrace.
Several thoughts emerged when this happened: Am I not huggable? Is there something uncomfortable about hugging me? Is this family friend feeling differently about our departure than me? Am I making her uncomfortable?
Dance/movement therapists attend to the messages that occur nonverbally through the movement relationship with others. We use systems such as Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), the Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP), and Movement Pattern Analysis (MPA) in order to describe, interpret, document, and intervene with a variety of human movements. A dance/movement therapist views movement of the body as both expressive and communicative, and in examining one’s movement vocabulary or range, we can “open a door to the study of patterns of early development, coping strategies, and personality configurations” (Kestenberg Amighi, Loman, Lewis, & Sossin, 1999, p. 2). Through looking at some of the concepts within these systems of movement analysis along with touch research, we can begin to understand the nonverbal dance that might occur within a hug.
Here are a few (simplified) concepts:
I’m always interested in nonverbal messages and ways we can increase the therapeutic effect on the body and the mind. It was clear in my recent encounter with the family friend that different people perceive touch differently. In an older study, Anderson and Leibowitz (1978) discovered that in same-sex dyads, men were more likely than women to engage in touch avoidance. Another study conducted by Jason Wrench noted that individuals who are deprived from touch may need more nurturing, and noted a relationship between touch deprivation and depression. Regardless, despite the research that hugging and touch can be beneficial, there are many reasons why some may be uncomfortable with physical touch—including experiences in which touch was not consensual, was intrusive, or was was withheld. This is why affection of any kind should never be forced. The nonverbal communication that occurs in the seconds prior to a three-second embrace, and after, speaks louder than words. Read and respect the cues of another person. Affectionate acts such as hugs should happen because two people feel like giving them, not because of any pressure.
In interesting irony:That evening after I said goodbye to my friend, I unwrapped a piece of Dove chocolate that had a special message inside: A gentle touch speaks volumes.
Indeed—and now we know why.
Anderson, P.A. & Leibowitz, K. (1978). The development and nature of the construct touch avoidance. Environment Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 253-258.
Field, T. (2002). Infants’ need for touch. Human Development, 45, 100-103.
Grewen, K.M., Anderson, B.J., Girdler, S.S., Light, K.C., (2003). Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behavioral Medicine, 29, 123-130.
Kestenberg Amighi, J., Loman, S., Lewis, P., & Sossin, K.M. (1999). The meaning of movement: Developmental and clinical perspectives of the Kestenberg Movement Profile. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Gordon and Breach.
Laban, R. ., & Ullmann, L. (1960). The mastery of movement. London: MacDonald & Evans.
Light, K., C., Grewen, K., Amico, J. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology, 69, 5–21.
Nagy, E. (2011). Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. Journal of Ethology, 29(2), 389-393.
Punyanunt-Carter N., & Wrench, J. A. (n.d). Development and Validity Testing of a Measure of Touch Deprivation. Human Communication, 12(1), 67-76.
© Christina Devereaux, PhD, LCAT, LMHC, BC-DMT
"Dance/movement therapists believe that all movement meets a need - whether functional or emotional - and it is an outward expression of one's internal world." ~ Stacey Hurst