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It’s Time to Rethink the Norms of Social Touching

How the pandemic has taken away social touching and how we can bring it back.

Key points

  • The pandemic has had long-lasting effects on the norms of social touching.
  • Social touching has been proven to be important for well-being and stress coping.
  • Self-touching may be an alternative, but whenever possible, social touching should return to everyday life.
pattybphoto/Unsplash
Source: pattybphoto/Unsplash

My friend Sara is at our door as she ties her shoes. The dinner party is over, and, as she gets up to say goodbye, there is a pause. Should we hug?

I sense that we want to touch, but we are both unsure, and the moment passes. We awkwardly wave and she leaves.

My friend and I are not the only ones unsure of how to navigate norms around social touching these days. I believe it is time to bring touch back into our social interactions.

Countless studies demonstrate the benefits of being touched for development and well-being (for example, Ditzen et al., 2007; Field, 1998; Moyer et al., 2004). For example, pre-term babies who receive massages gain more weight (Field, 1995). People who receive more frequent hugs recover faster from infection with the common cold virus (Cohen et al., 2014). Even hugging a human-shaped cushion has been found to lower cortisol values (Sumioka et al., 2013).

However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people started to touch each other less because of fear of the virus and social distancing recommendations (Von Mohr et al., 2021).

Now, two years into the pandemic, a certain reluctance to touch has developed in social gatherings. Today, people often do not greet each other with supportive touch (such as handshaking or hugging), but wave or use other forms of non-tactile greetings.

In addition, we live in a culture that has started to develop fears of being accused of inappropriate touching. This includes the workplace generally, but also within specific professions that include close contact with clients, patients, or other groups. Men in caretaking jobs such as nursing or childcare are more and more afraid, or even prohibited from, touching patients or children.

Couple these developments with big differences in cultural norms of what constitutes acceptable social touching. A famous study by a sociologist in the 1960s recorded touching behavior between conversation partners in cafés in various places in the world (Jourard, 1966). The result? People in England touched zero times, in the U.S. two times, in France 110 times, and in Puerto Rico 180 times.

From a psychological perspective, this trend of decreased social touching is troubling. Humans are social animals and their need to belong is as important as their need for food or sleep. Touch can have many meanings, but when we use social touch like hand-holding, handshaking, or hugging we signal important messages for survival on a psychological and physiological level:

“You belong.”

“I like you.”

“I support you.”

“You’re not alone.”

Empirical analyses have largely debunked the idea of a “loneliness epidemic” in the sense that more and more people are feeling lonely each year (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019). Nevertheless, many people—in absolute terms—report feeling lonely on a regular basis and being touched is a powerful way of alleviating that loneliness.

What to do about norms against social touching?

Let’s start by pointing out that they exist.

At the height of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci went on record saying, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you."

This may be a solid judgment from an epidemiologist's point of view, but if we consider how important touch is for development and well-being and the role it plays in social rituals in society, this judgment has to be questioned.

Now, some may say, perhaps we should restrict all touching to our closest friends, our spouses, and family members. I would say this is good advice as long as the pandemic still rages. When it eventually fades, we will need to find ways to reincorporate social touching into our culture.

What else can we do about these anti-touching norms?

Going first

I believe the best thing people can do to normalize social touching again is to be the first to offer touch. Obviously, touch needs to be safe depending on the situation. That includes being aware of current infection rates of the coronavirus (or some other future easily transmitted disease) and the quality of the relationship. Nevertheless, people are often just afraid to take the first step as it requires being vulnerable (Bruk et al., 2018).

If you find this too direct, you can ask. After all, not everyone likes to be touched, and, as we saw, different societies have different norms about social touching (especially in public).

"Can I hug you?"

"Is handshaking okay?"

Self-touching

Finally, people can touch themselves. As strange as that may sound, non-sexual self-touching happens frequently. In fact, some readers may be self-touching right now (e.g., touching their face, rubbing their hands). Anthropologists and psychologists have long viewed self-touching like rubbing, scratching, massaging, and holding as representing a subconscious strategy to reduce bodily tensions or to self-regulate negative emotions.

But self-touching can also be used deliberately to lower stress. Last year, my team and I published data from a study showing that self-soothing gestures such as placing the right hand on the heart and the left hand on the belly for 20 seconds was enough to keep cortisol values low during a stressful paradigm that includes public speaking and performing arithmetics of four-digit numbers out loud in front of a video camera and two people (Dreisoerner et al., 2021).

The pandemic is far from over and the rules designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, including mask mandates, testing, and social distancing, will likely continue to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. However, with large portions of society being twice or three-times vaccinated, it is time to rethink the norms of social touching.

References

Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self-other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192–205. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000120

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2014). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26(2), 135–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614559284

Ditzen, B., Neumann, I. D., Bodenmann, G., von Dawans, B., Turner, R. A., Ehlert, U., & Heinrichs, M. (2007). Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 32(5), 565–574. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2007.03.011

Dreisoerner, A., Junker, N. M., Schlotz, W., Heimrich, J., Bloemeke, S., Ditzen, B., & van Dick, R. (2021). Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, 8, 100091. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpnec.2021.100091

Field, T. M. (1995). Infant massage therapy. In Touch in early development. (pp. 105–114). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Field, T. M. (1998). Massage therapy effects. American Psychologist, 53(12), 1270–1281. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.53.12.1270

Jourard, S. M. (1966). An exploratory study of body-accessibility. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 5(3), 221–231. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8260.1966.tb00978.x

Moyer, C. A., Rounds, J., & Hannum, J. W. (2004). A meta-analysis of massage therapy research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(1), 3–18. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.1.3

Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2019, December 19). Is there a loneliness epidemic? Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/loneliness-epidemic

Sumioka, H., Nakae, A., Kanai, R., & Ishiguro, H. (2013). Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Scientific Reports, 3(1), 3034. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep03034

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