How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Touching is one of the most powerful forms of non-verbal communication and needs to be managed with care.
Touching is a common part of many rituals, in which the action often has a long-forgotten symbolic meaning.
Rituals are highly culture-dependent, which means touching in some cultures is normal whilst in others there is far less touching.
Greeting and departure
By far the most common touching ritual is greeting and departure, although the actual form of the ritual changes across countries. This may include shaking hands, hugging, kissing, rubbing noses and other touching.
When hold out your hand, you show that are not holding a weapon. When you allow others to touch you, you are indicating a level of trust.
Rituals may be used to show approval and delight, where touching is a form of reward or deligh bonding.
More formally, these include shaking hands or patting. Children may be patted on the head, others may be patted on the back. Less formally, approval may be shown with hugs and body-grabbing.
Men on men
Men have a particular concern about status, in particular relative to one another. This is a primitive tribal game and is played out every day around the world.
When one man touches another, even if it appears that it is related to sympathy, then there is a game of status and power being played out.
Shaking hands, although basically a ritual, may also contain significant acts of domination.
The 'power grip' grabs the other person's hand firmly and shakes vigorously. The 'vice grip' does this to extreme, intending to demonstrate strength by causing pain.
The 'hand on top' method offers the palm down, using the principle that being above the other person in any way symbolizes superiority. This is often combined with an elbow grab.
There is also domination in the duration of the shake. If you do not let go within the prescribed period, then you are taking control. Even for a second, this can send subtle power signals.
Back and arm touching
Patting on the back and touching the arm may be an act of sympathy and friendship. It can also be an act of dominance. Again, between men and particularly in situations of power, this is a signal of who is in charge.
The simplest way of countering dominant touching is to do it back to the other person. This can be very surprising for them, especially if you seem not to be subdued and even may be smiling at their surprise.
If they pat you on the back or arm, you can do it to them with the other hand, put you hand on top or slide your arm underneath and pat their side (if they are on top, this shows that you have got beneath their guard). You can even turn the whole thing into a hug.
Touching is often used as a form of demonstrating sympathy, particularly between women. Men also may use it, but it is easily confused with acts of power (it may also be mistaken for homosexual acts of intimacy).
Showing sympathy when you are not very close to the other person typically is done with more distant and brief touching of the back, shoulder or arm.
Even a short touch can be very comforting and is effective when you fear that they may misunderstand the touch as dominance or intimacy.
Closer forms of sympathetic touching are closer to intimate actions, such as putting your arm around the other person or hugging them as they cry or touching the arm for more prolonged periods.
This is more common amongst women, partners or very close friends.
Friends tend to greet each other with more intimate touching, such a hugging or even kissing (although this may vary with culture).
Friendship touching will also vary with the intensity and type of friendship. Some people you just touch more and some do not like it. In a group of friends, one tactile person may convert the whole group to a more touchy culture.
Families touch one another more, in particular parents and children, where as well as sympathetic touching there may be guidance and others forms of touch.
As with friends (and lovers), families touch each other more partly because they trust one another and also to sustain bonding and trust.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most powerful connection is when a woman touches a man. Women touching women may also have a reasonable effect.
Man-on-man touching is least likely to have a positive effect and can be negative, due to homophobic fears or power games, as described above.
Partners and lovers touch each other a great deal. Intimacy does not have to be all sexual and is often just because it feels good. This may include holding hands, arms around each other, necking, nuzzling and kissing.
In early romance, a light touch or brush may be a signal that the person would like to get closer and touch more intimately. Touching hands hence becomes holding hands, holding bodies and so on.
And of course there is also sexual touching, done with the deliberate intent of arousal and gratification.
Gueguen and Fischer-Lokou (2003) showed how touching another person during a conversation influenced the other person very strongly. After touching a stranger when asking directions, turning away and 'dropping' some diskettes, the touched subject would stoop to help pick them up 90% of the time, as opposed to 63% of the time when they were not touched.
Other research findings include:
(Schirmer et al., 2011) found that even touch by a machine increased empathy, showing that this is a very basic process, that happens without mental processing.
Touch creates a bonding effect and this experiment shows how powerful this is in turning a stranger to offer proactive support. Of course asking them for directions also had an effect, but the increase is significantly more with just a light touch. This bonding effect is clearly significant for other sections above and constitutes a significant method for influencing others.
This bonding effect from a simple touch has been shown to have multiple benefits, including a greater likelihood of:
The extent, strength and repetition of a touch can have an amplifying effect on the other person's decision.
Simply touching a person twice can have a greater effect than touching them once. Vaidis and Halimi-Falkowicz (2008) asked people on the street to complete a questionnaire. Those who were touched twice were more likely to agree.
Of course there are also limits: touching a person too often or too firmly or in the wrong place may be considered an invasion and result in reactive rejection.
Gueguen, N. and Fischer-Lokou (2003). Tactile Contact and Spontaneous Help: An Evaluation in a Natural Setting, Journal of Social Psychology, 143(6), 785-787
Schirmer, A., Teh, K., Wang, S., Vijayakumar, R., Ching, A., Nithianantham, D., Escoffier, N., and Cheok, A. (2011). Squeeze me, but don't tease me: Human and mechanical touch enhance visual attention and emotion discrimination. Social Neuroscience, 6 (3), 219-230
Vaidis, D.C. and Halimi-Falkowicz, S.G. (2008). Increasing compliance with a request: two touches are more effective than one. Psychological Reports. 103(1), 88-92.