Navigating the “touch, no touch” quagmire: Part 2 – by Terry Howard

“Reach out and touch someone and make this a better world if you can.”  ~ Diana Ross

Wow, before the ink was dry on my, “Hug me not Joe Biden,” fundamentally a “don’t touch” (or touch selectively) advisory, in the American Diversity Report, along comes Tiffany Field who has spent decades trying to get people to do just the opposite…. touch one another more.

Okay, I say don’t touch, she says do touch!

So what gives?

Well, unlike yours truly, Field knows a thing or two about benefits of touching. A developmental psychologist, she founded the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s School of Medicine. She’s a pioneer in highlighting the effects of “touch deprivation” among kids which can result in permanent physical and cognitive impairment and social withdrawal later in life.

Reports Fields in a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine, the hug has been repeatedly linked to good health. “Yet even as evidence of the importance of physical touch has piled up, the world has been moving in the opposite direction. You don’t see people touching each other anymore, in large part because they’re all on their phones and iPads and computers,” Field said.

In a study about hugs helping the immune system, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University isolated 400 people in a hotel and exposed them to a cold virus. People who had supportive social interactions had fewer and less severe symptoms. Physical touch (specifically hugging) seemed to account for about a third of that effect.

Conventional wisdom is that Americans largely practice one of two types of hug: the full-body press that’s generally reserved for close relationships, or the “A frame” type: bending at the back, partially twisting, and barely even touching. There are many ways to deviate from the hug canon in less awkward and potentially even fun ways, Field noted.

“We’re getting a lot of calls about cuddling groups,” Field said, “which I think is related to a decline in touch not just among strangers, but even among intimate couples.”

Enter the gender dynamic

“There is a lot of research on how touch is hierarchical, and males can touch females but not vice versa,” Field said, noting that caretakers in nursing homes tend to touch female residents much more than males, and the latter are at higher risk of touch deprivation. “I think some of that is reflected in what’s going on, where people are seeing the hierarchical aspect of the touch and not the supportive aspect.”

Says Field, attributing situations like Biden’s to an overall change in people’s willingness to be touched is a sweeping claim that stands to make a physically isolated culture even more so. As we get more isolated, Field argues, we need platonic touch more than ever, even if we don’t realize it. A vicious cycle is happening, wherein the less people initiate, the more abnormal it seems when someone does, and the more likely it is to be upsetting.

But even for all the benefits shown in research, admits Field, it’s not so simple as to say that all hugs are good.

“If it were, we’d all have hug robots that we’d hug all the time. Some of us would get addicted. Some would die of dehydration in the arms of the machine. Even people who have no memory of being touched can be affected by it.”

The simplistic message that personal boundaries are being redrawn is a missed opportunity to think about how touch is supposed to work. This doesn’t need to draw on some idea of political correctness, wrote Field. “It’s right there in the studies. The benefits of a hug evaporate when a person perceives it as aggression.”

Unsurprisingly, Field is hearing from men who have told her that after “this Biden episode,” they believe they need to wait for women to initiate physical contact, if there is to be any.

“I do think men need to be more careful which can be unfortunate for genuinely affectionate people,” Field said. “And if women want to be touched, then it may be that they’re going to have to initiate.”

So how do we break out of the touch, no touch bind?

Well, as I said in my previous narrative, it’s a matter of clearly establishing boundaries on one side …… and respecting those boundaries on the other.


Terry Howard

One thought on “Navigating the “touch, no touch” quagmire: Part 2 – by Terry Howard”

  1. This article is very relevant and timely. I especially like the simple call to action: clearly establishing boundaries on one side and respecting those boundaries on the other.

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