Functions of Touch

Examining the Communicative Functions of Touch

Touch serves a number of communicative functions of considerable importance, such as the communication of affection, commitment, control, and intimacy (Guerrero & Anderson, 1994).

In the broadest sense, touch functions to express interpersonal attitudes (Argyle, 1986). From the perspective of the toucher, attitudes expressed may range from a mother’s tender love for her infant to the unseemly aggression of an angry person.

We know too that touch plays a role in persuasion. Studies have repeatedly shown that communicators who touch those persons they are trying to persuade are more successful than those who do not (Patterson, Powell, & Lenihan, 1986).

Interestingly, marketers in business are also using touch to sell products. Peck and Wiggins (2006) found that when customers lack complete information on a product, a sales person’s touch helps to motivate them to buy the product.

There are four main communicative functions of touch: support, power, affiliation, and aggression. Therefore, these functions deserve closer scrutiny.

1.   The Support Function

Tactile communication Opens in new window assumes primary importance when we wish to emphasize feelings of warmth, reassurance, or comfort (Marx, Werner, & Cohen-Mansfield, 1989).

Tactile messages have been found to be particularly effective in providing reassurance to those who need emotional support. Tactile messages seem to serve the therapeutic function better than any other means of communication. Jourard (1966) wrote with conviction that the therapeutic function of touch is the most important of all.

In their insightful book Nonverbal Communication with Patients: Back to the Human Touch, Blondis and Jackson (1977) made quite clear that in nursing, touch can serve a more important therapeutic role than any other kind of nonverbal communication Opens in new window.

  • They emphasize that our “first comfort in life comes from touch—and usually our last, since touch may communicate with the comatose, dying patient when words have no way of breaking through” (p. 6).

Patients who have lost all verbal capacity can ordinarily feel a gentle touch and be moved by the message of caring and reassurance that it represents. Some terminally ill patients lose the power to speak. When this is the case, a tactile code is sometimes worked out whereby the patient squeezes the nurse’s hand once to mean yes and twice to mean no. In these instances, the tactile message represents the patient’s sole surviving means of communicating with the outside world.

Whether working in pediatrics Opens in new window, geriatrics, or the emergency receiving room, the nurse and other members of the medical team recognize that touch is frequently their most effective medium of emotional communication. This is probably true because the trauma associated with birth and critical illness strongly reinforces the patient’s insecurities and fears while placing a premium on the emphatic response that provides reassurance. Thus, a patient may reach out to grasp the nurse’s hand, seeking comfort and reassurance through the sense of touch.

The positive feelings of sympathyOpens in new window, reassurance, understanding, and compassion are transmitted through touch—just as are the negative feelings of angerOpens in new window, hostility, and fearOpens in new window. To be truly therapeutic, tactile communicationOpens in new window must be used at the appropriate time and place. (Blondis & Jackson, 1977, p. 9)

Previous research has established that touching between individuals can play an important role in the maintenance of health. In reference to their research, Lewis and her colleagues (1995) wrote:

One particular emphasis, however, has been on the impact of touch initiated by nurses and other health providers in influencing how well patients cope. Nurses may pat, hold, or shake a patient’s hand as they seek to convey comfort, and they also touch patients as part of hospital procedures (while giving intravenous medications or monitoring a patient’s blood pressures). The question then emerges about the circumstances when the use of touch by a health provider is perceived as appropriate. (p. 101)

The answer to that question is not simple. On the one hand, nurses are rated as more supportive and competent the more they exhibit touching when interacting with the patient. However, the gender of the patient clearly affects how the nurse’s touching is perceived.

Female patients, compared to males, perceived nurse-initiated touch more positively. This finding in turn may be linked at least in part to gender-role stereotyping. Stereotypically, females prefer supportiveness whereas males may “react less favorably to a nurse who uses touch because the touch implies vulnerability and dependency for the patient” (Lewis et al., 1995, pp. 110 – 111).

The role of touch in providing support and nurturance in parent-child relationships is well established. With increasing concern about child abuse, more attention is being given to assessing the relative appropriateness in different kinds of intrafamily touching.

Thus, Harrison-Speake and Willis (1995) discovered reasonably clear overall norms for parent-child touch. They found, for example, lower approval ratings for touching older as opposed to younger children; higher approval ratings for mothers than for fathers when applied to lap sitting, kissing, and bathing their children; and higher approval ratings for lap sitting and kissing when applied to girls as opposed to boys.

The need for touching that provides support continues to be strong for many adults. Supportive touch by other persons is important in attaining and maintaining good health both physically and psychologically.

Given the therapeutic power of touch, it is sad fact that many individuals who most need touch are the least likely to receive it. Results from one study indicate that severely impaired patients are touched much less frequently by members of a medical team than are those with less severe impairments. Similarly, patients who have had a breast removed or who have undergone a sex-change operation are less likely to be touched than those who have received less drastic medical treatment (Watson, 1975).

Indeed, there are many businesses, especially in the telemarketing area, where employees are encouraged to be supportive of or complimentary to co-workers who have just completed a successful sale with a client on the phone. Workers must be aware that their actions are perceived by all, especially any touching behavior. If touch is a necessary part of the “sales” experience, then it is better to be the receiver than the sender of a tactile form of communication. Managers and employers must also be careful about using touch.

2.   The Power Function

Touch probably functions most effectively to delineate the relative power, dominance, and status of interacting individuals.

Henley’s fascinating research (1977) has established quite clearly that the frequency with which we touch and are touched by others is a reliable indicator of our perceived power.

Results from her research show that people reported more likelihood of their touching subordinates and coworkers than bosses; of touching younger or same-age people than older ones; and of touching sales clerks than police officers. Likewise, their expectations of others’ touching them also reflected their hierarchical relationship: for example, they reported more probability of boss and coworker touching them than of a subordinate doing so (p. 104).

In short, the powerful person is apt to be the toucher and the powerless person the touched. Because of this relationship, the power of touch is a privilege reserved for the powerful. This relationship applies even to the “untouchable” castes of India. They are called untouchable because their low status dictates that they may not touch members of a higher caste.

Touch is so effective a medium for the communication of powerful cues that touchers are perceived to have more power and status than the touched, regardless of the gender of the toucher or the touched (Scroggs, 1980). To touch enhances one’s perceived power; to be touched diminishes perceived power. Touchers have consistently been perceived as more dominant and assertive than nontouchers (Major, 1980).

Finally, observers who have looked at photographs of male-female dyads, some who were touching and some who were not touching, rated the touchers as significantly more powerful, strong, superior, and dominant (Summerhayes & Suchner, 1978).

In her insightful summary of research on the meaning of touch, Major (1980) emphasized that touch strongly and reliably shapes perceptions of one’s power. She wrote that empirical research strongly supports Henley’s theory that touching implies power. Across experiments, the initiator of touch is seen as more powerful, dominant, and of higher status than the recipient. Furthermore, it appears that such affects the balance of power in a relationship by simultaneously enhancing that of the toucher and diminishing that of the recipient. (p. 26)

Although aggression has been treated by one scholar as a separate function served by touch (Argyle, 1986), it surely represents an extreme effort by one person to dominate another person. Thus, pushing, kicking, and outright physical attack may be socially inappropriate forms of tactile communication, but they are undertaken with the objective of dominating another individual. Aggressive touch, therefore, serves the power function.

2.   The Affiliation Function

We have already discussed the importance of human touch in forming close, interpersonal relationships with other people. In fact, the amount of reciprocal touching done by two people is usually a reliable indicator of how much they like each other (Collier, 1985).

In an intimate relationship, the physical messages communicated by your partner’s skin may be your best guide as to whether and when you should proceed with more intimate touching.

We should recognize that individuals who are romantically involved with each other may interpret their touches quite differently. Thus, females tend to associate progressively intimate touches with greater commitment, whereas males do not necessarily do so; a woman’s association of touching with commitment seems to become stronger as the touching becomes highly intimate (Johnson & Edwards, 1991).

Relatedly, men initiate touch significantly more often in casual romantic relationships and during courtship, whereas women initiate touch more frequently in married relationships (Guerrero & Anderson, 1994; Willis & Briggs, 1992). The authors suggest that social control may be more important for men in casual relationships, whereas intimacy may become more important than social control in a stable, long-term relationship.

4.   The Aggression Function

The final function of touch is aggression. The aggressive touch, or what is sometimes called abusive or violent touch, is problematic and worrisome for the victims. Inappropriate touch has been significantly curbed in the corporate world. Managers and executives point to a marked improvement in both efficiency and interpersonal relations. Yet, there are still problems with multiple meanings of touch used in the business context, especially within cross-gender relationships. One study found that men were more likely than women to interpret corporate touch from the opposite gender in a profane manner (Lee & Guerrero, 2001).

Similar trends exist in psychotherapy about the rarity of physicians touching their clients. In a recent survey of almost 500 psychologists, more than 90 percent reported that they preferred not to use touch as a therapeutic device. Other than the handshake as a way to introduce oneself or to signal that the session is over, touch was avoided and highly frowned upon in the professional community (Stenzel & Rupert, 2004).

Some therapists want to use touch, especially when it is needed. However, the use of touch is the exception, not the rule. One area where touching is not often used is with victims of abuse. In fact, Glickauf-Hughes and Chance (1998) provide four recommendations for the therapist when using touch with these clients:

We have seen that the aggressive function of touch is a concern and must be continually addressed by professionals, academics, and persons in daily interaction. This form of touch is dangerous and can be detrimental to users during interaction.

We recognize that the functional importance of touch is not confined solely to support, power, affiliation, and aggression. Argyle (1986) maintained that touch serves important functions as an interaction signal in greetings and farewells, in congratulations, and in ceremonies. Touch seems to assume a less important role here, however, because touch must interact with eye behaviors and gestures to determine the effectiveness of such specific kinds of communication as greetings.