Gender Rules for Appropriate Workplace Touching

Although we all need touch, not all tactile behavior is the same.

Posted Jun 02, 2019

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Although we all need touch, not all tactile behavior is the same. Touch can communicate varied emotions from one end of the spectrum (extreme hostility and aggression) to the other (comfort, intimacy, and love). Its meaning is a function of a number of factors: how long it lasts, how intense it is, where you are touched, the other person’s intentions in touching you, and the relationship in which it occurs—the context.

The very same behavior can have myriad meanings depending not only on who does the touching, how, when, for how long, and where, but also on who is being touched.

Touch is an inherently ambiguous form of nonverbal communication. It can’t be separated from its context or from the words or the other nonverbal cues that accompany it. Touching a woman lightly on the outside of the arm sends quite a different message than touching her on the inside. And when your husband tucks in the label of your blouse at the nape of the neck it feels entirely different than when the veterinarian’s assistant does so. As Robert H. Gass and John S. Seiter explain, “What one person may interpret as friendly [...] another may see as flirtatious. Can the brushing of one employee against another be interpreted as accidental or as a form of sexual harassment? Is a pat on the back a sign of encouragement or an attempt to demonstrate dominance?”

To help clarify these issues, psychologist Richard Heslin categorized touch by the relationship with the person touching you:

Functional-professional: Many professionals—nurses, dentists, doctors, personal fitness trainers, manicurists, tailors, masseurs, hairdressers, physical therapists, and the like touch people in the normal course of work every day. This has been referred to this as “cold touch”—people are touching you in order to achieve a goal or provide a service, not because they want to be friendly with you.

Social-polite: Heslin explains that we use this kind of ritualistic touch to “affirm the other person’s identity as a member of the same species, operating by essentially the same rules of conduct.” This is the kind of everyday touch that we enact with acquaintances and even strangers. You might tap someone on the shoulder to ask for directions or to tell him he’s standing in the wrong line or that her purse is open. You might guide someone out the door by putting an arm around her. Handshakes fall into this category as well as leading someone by the arm as you give directions. “Look, it’s over here.” 

Friendship-warmth: This kind of touch sends a message that the person being touched is unique and unlike anyone else (in contrast to the social-polite touch that’s more anonymous). We may communicate our closeness by grasping the arm of the person, putting our arm around his shoulder, taking someone’s hand into our two hands, or even covering a handshake with our free hand. CBS Reporter Morley Safer once said that President Clinton was adept at using such subtle changes in handshakes to communicate warmth and friendship to those he met.

Love-intimacy: According to psychologist Sidney Jourard, touch is the primitive language of love. It is the gatekeeper of intimacy—the final bond between people when even words fail. In intimate situations, touch is welcomed and necessary. Hugging, handholding, caressing, kissing, side-by-side snuggling is usually reserved for family members and significant others. With an intimate touch, many more parts of the body are allowed to be touched in private than in public.

Men live in a different universe when it comes to touch. They don’t employ as much touch as women do. This is especially true in the office, and often it’s not because they fear being accused of sexual harassment, being politically incorrect, or because of self-consciousness. (In the last two decades, the reports of sexual harassment have increased tenfold from what they had been in the past.) For men, touch in the workplace is almost exclusively motivated by power. Nancy Henley analyzed nonverbal behavior in Fortune 500 companies and found that touch among men tends to be directed from the top down as a status marker. A manager can pat an employee on the back and say, “Good job,” but the employee will think twice before returning the favor. Whoever initiates the touch has the power. Beyond this sort of power-touch behavior, men in our culture have not been avid touchers. To wit: The term “touchy-feely” is used to ridicule.

Someone has to die (funerals are basically it) for men to hug others, especially other men. American men can be so homophobic that certain of them in my audiences actually cringe when I tell them that in Italy men stroll arm-in-arm and kiss each other on the cheek. A pat on the fanny is acceptable in the context of sports, but not when you’re walking down the hallway at work! Context is critical!