Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Touch is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. It can create a positive relationship climate, or it can be used to intimidate or frighten someone. It is one of the most provocative, yet least understood means of communication, according to a review of research in the field of nonverbal communication.

Researchers at DuPauw University investigated whether people can identify emotions from the experience of being touched by a stranger on the arm (without seeing the touch). They found that participants could decode anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy via touch at much-better-than-chance levels. The authors also provide evidence that participants can accurately decode distinct emotions by merely watching others communicate via touch.

Emotions that are communicated by touch can go on to shape our behavior. Studies have found that even if we have no conscious memory of a touch, like a hand on the shoulder, after a slight touch, we may be more likely to agree to a request, respond more or less positively to a person or product, or form a closer bond with someone.

Touch, by nature, is somewhat ambiguous and easily misinterpreted. At work, some people choose to limit social relationships. On the other hand, many have close friendships with co-workers and some date and enter into romantic partnerships with people they work with. Co-workers that want to express interest in one another walk a fine line between showing affection and demonstrating inappropriate sexual interest. My blog on office romances covers this more in detail.

The diversity of ethnicity, religion, personality, workgroup culture, and other factors makes the medium of touch even more complicated. What might be considered as a friendly greeting in one culture might be regarded as offensive in another culture. A pat on the back may be seen as supportive by one person and condescending by someone else. In his research, J.D. Fisher observed that touch is essentially a positive stimulus for the recipient to the extent that it does not impose a greater amount of intimacy than the recipient desires or communicate a negative message.

In one observational study of conversations in outdoor cafes in London, Paris, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, the number of casual touches was counted. A total of 189 touches per hour were recorded in San Juan and 110 in Paris. In London, there were zero touches. One would expect to find touch counts that vary significantly between work groups and work professions as well. I have a client with offices in Washington, D.C., and Miami. In the D.C. office, the majority of employees are from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. The Miami office is comprised of employees from primarily Latin American countries. Whenever I visit the D.C. office, I am greeted by a polite handshake. In Miami, it’s a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Neither greeting seems unusual given the cultural context.

Very little research has been conducted on touch in the workplace. The use of touch in the workplace has often been associated with negative outcomes involving harassment complaints and lawsuits. Unfortunately, the incidence of harassment complaints has not decreased over the last 20 years. While laws protecting employees from unwanted touch and other forms of harassment are necessary, in response, some people develop what researchers call “touch anxiety,” a form of walking on eggshells. This fear of touch can create an unnatural state of human interaction that can have a negative impact on morale and normal conversations, not to mention a reduction in productivity. Could there be a much more positive side to workplace touch?

One of the first major studies to examine workplace touch studied teams in the National Basketball Association. After reviewing broadcasts of games from the 2008 to 2009 season, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that good teams tend to be much more hands-on than bad ones. In the study, it was found that teams whose players touched the most often (slaps, hugs, taps, or bumps) were more cooperative, played better, and won more games.

In their book The One Minute Manager, Blanchard and Johnson suggested that managers are likely to gain a variety of benefits if they use touch to show employees that they care about them and are concerned about their success. They theorized that through touch, people communicate support and caring for each other, and thus feel safer and closer to one another. 

There are workplace cultures where touch has been used so abusively that the social fabric of the organization has become toxic. In some of those organizations, it has been necessary to establish rules that forbid any type of touch. Some schools don’t allow teachers to touch students, and some workplaces forbid or discourage any type of touch between managers or employees. While these rules may be needed to protect people, they do nothing to change the culture, and in fact may be making it worse overall.

Understanding that touch is powerful and complex, it is imperative to use it mindfully. To use touch wisely and positively at work, here are some thoughts to consider:

  • Social context, relationship, gender, culture, status, and many other factors determine the appropriateness of touch. Each individual’s response to touch is unique. One person may appreciate a hug, while another will cringe with horror at the same behavior.
  • Be mindful. Increase your ability to observe subtle reactions to a touch. If you hug someone as a greeting, and they tense up, pull away, or show a facial expression of surprise or fear, you know that person doesn’t want to be hugged by you. Even before you touch a person, if you observe deeply, you will pick up behavioral cues as to whether you should touch them or not. You might ask permission before a large tactile approach with someone you don’t know well.
  • Never use touch to show dominance or intimidation. Certain handshakes or tight arm grasps are often the culprits here. This is likely to damage your relationship with the person to whom you are communicating.
  • Separate your intention from the impact of your behavior. Your intention in touching someone may be to treat the recipient how you would like to be treated, or your intention may be to show support. The impact on the receiver may be very different. Notice the impact, and don’t get hung up on your positive intention if the person perceived the touch as negative.
  • Apologize if you think you offended someone.
  • If you are in a hierarchical position at work — for example, a person’s manager — recognize that your touch conveys a more powerful message, and be very mindful of your use of touch. Use it wisely to communicate support, encouragement, a celebration of success, and concern. Remember that other employees are watching how you treat others.
  • When in doubt, play it safe. If you are not sure if touch is appropriate with someone at work, don’t do it. There are plenty of safe alternatives to making a warm connection. Use a genuine smile, give verbal praise, use an empathetic tone of voice, send a compliment in writing, or celebrate a success in a meeting.

What has your experience been with touch in the workplace, both positive and negative?

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