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The Secret Powers of Touch

Conveying feelings, controlling others, and accomplishing tasks.

Key points

  • Touch is a complex body language channel that conveys many subtle messages to others.
  • A classification of different types of touches includes using them to convey feelings, to control others, and to accomplish tasks.
  • Touch can increase compliance and even increase a waiter's tip.

Nonverbal communication is the means by which we convey messages to others without words. There are a number of important body language channels, including facial expressions, gestures, eye and body movements that are used to send complex messages. One important channel that is often overlooked is touch.

Researchers Jones and Yarbrough (1985) classified the different ways that people use touch in the place of language, and came up with 5 categories:

  1. Positive Affect Touches. These are used to signal liking, affection, and sexual interest. Obvious examples are hugging loved ones, holding hands, but some cues are quite subtle, such as flirting with someone by lightly touching them on the arm, or touching knees.
  2. Playful Touches. This includes any form of touching that is non-serious, and typically done to persons we like, such as tickling, mock fighting/punching, or shoving someone (for Seinfeld fans, the character Elaine was famous for shoving her friends hard – almost bowling them over).
  3. Control Touches. These are touches to get someone to comply in some way, such as ushering a person out of a room, or trying to get their attention – grabbing their hand, or putting your finger to their lips to shut them up.
  4. Ritualistic Touches. This includes all forms of greetings – handshakes, fist bumps, kissing the cheek, etc. [More on greetings here]. It also includes holding hands in prayer, contact during dancing, and touches that are used to say “goodbye.”
  5. Task-oriented Touches. These are touches that have a specific task-related purpose, such as assisting an elderly person out of a seat, helping someone along a rocky path so that they don’t fall, or guiding another’s hands to show them how to perform some task or operation.

There is good evidence that a positive and subtle touch can have an amazing impact on others’ behavior. For example, in studies of compliance – trying to get another person to give money, sign a petition, and the like – a slight touch can increase rates of compliance. Also, research in restaurants has shown that if a server lightly touches the customer, it can increase the percentage of the customer’s tip.

By observing the type of touch between a romantic couple, astute observers can often tell a lot about the strength of the relationship between the two. Couples can use “tie-signs,” such as holding hands, or arms around the shoulders to both signal liking for each other, and for telling others that “we are a couple.”

Facebook image: Chaay_Tee/Shutterstock

References

Jones, S. E., & Yarbrough, A. E. (1985). A naturalistic study of the meanings of

touch. Communication Monographs, 52, 19–56.

Remland, M. S., & Jones, T. S. (2022). The Functions and Consequences of Interpersonal Touch in Close Relationships. In Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships (pp. 307-339). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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