Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock
Source: Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock

Shy people struggle with what to say to others and how close to get to them—when to shake hands, touch someone on the arm, or give someone a hug. It’s become a more pressing issue in recent decades because the rules of tactility have changed.

One indication of how much they have changed is based on an account written in 1953 by John Hunt, leader of the first successful expedition to climb Mt. Everest. Hunt wrote that when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned to base camp after reaching the summit, he was “ashamed to confess that there was some hugging and even some tears.”

In 1966, the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology published an article that was widely reported in the American and British press. Sidney Jourard, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, conducted a field study of couples in coffee shops in different cities. He found that in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, couples touched each other—by hand-holding, back-stroking, hair-caressing, or knee-patting—180 times per hour. In Paris, it was 110 times per hour; in Gainesville, Florida, it was twice per hour; in London, it was never.

In another experiment, Jourard gave several hundred students a sort of butcher’s chart with an outline of a human figure separated into 22 numbered zones: heads, hands, buttocks, and so on. Jourard asked them to mark which parts of their bodies had been seen naked, which had been touched by family and friends, and which parts of these same peoples' bodies they had seen naked and touched. The growing use of the bikini and bathing brief meant that the question about what had been seen naked did not produce very interesting results. A more arresting finding was that most people, unless they were lovers, touched others only briefly on the hands, arms, and shoulders. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, men commonly walked arm in arm with other men, and women with women.

Jourard concluded that America and Britain were “contactless societies.” In the U.S., this “touch taboo” even extended to barbers, who often used electric scalp massagers strapped to their hands so they did not have to touch their customers’ heads. And yet, for Jourard, the large number of massage parlors in U.S. and U.K. cities betrayed a desire for contact that was not being met in normal relationships. Many American motel rooms were equipped with “Magic Fingers,” a patented device which, after inserting a quarter, would gently vibrate one's bed for 15 minutes. Jourard concluded that “the machine has taken over another function of man—the loving and soothing caress.”

The new therapies and encounter groups that came out of California in the late 1960s, which prescribed the open expression of emotion—and generous doses of hugging and Swedish massage—sought to cure western society of this unhealthy touchlessness. Bernard Gunther, at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur Hot Springs in California, taught full-body and finger-head massage techniques as a path to “sensory awakening.” Some of Gunther’s more outré methods, such as mutual hair shampooing and the “Gunther hero sandwich” (whole groups doing a mass hug), failed to catch on. But the growing popularity of massage therapists probably helped Britain and America to become more tactile societies—and may be on reason why, by the 1980s, “Magic Fingers” had largely disappeared from American motel rooms. (It was also easy to break into the machines to steal the coins.)

The implication of Jourard’s research is that we need to be more open and transparent with each other and less repressed, and once we manage this we will be happier. There is no doubt that hugging other people can improve your mood. Parents hug their children when they hurt themselves, because hugging releases endorphins and can even be a painkiller. Teenagers will often hug themselves because they feel deprived of physical affection and are unsure how to obtain it—or they might hug objects, like guitars or schoolbooks, as a substitute for intimacy.

Not everyone, though, wants to be hugged or finds it comforting. The autistic writer Temple Grandin finds it hard to be hugged, although she has become more used to it over the years. As an introverted and disturbed teenager who longed to experience the pressure stimulation of being hugged, but who shrank from human contact, Grandin visited her aunt’s Arizona ranch, where she saw cattle being put in a squeeze chute: a pen with compressing metal sides, which kept them still and calm while they were inoculated, branded or castrated. Inspired, she devised a human “squeeze machine.” It had two slanting wooden boards, upholstered with thick padding and joined by hinges to make a V-shaped trough. When she kneeled inside it and turned on an air compressor, the boards applied gentle pressure, as if they were hugging her. For Grandin, this was a useful stage on the way to allowing others to touch her.

We all have different levels of human contact with which we feel comfortable. The California therapists of the 1960s thought that more bodily contact would help us lead happier and more fulfilled lives. Shy skeptics like me are inclined to think that happiness is more elusive, and that hugging each other more is not always a sign that we have understood each other better. There is no such thing as magic fingers, or magic arms.

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