Communicative Implications of Self-touch

Self-touch includes those gesturesOpens in new window that we use alone or while others are present. One of the best examples of self-touch used in front of others is the gesture to be silent or to whisper.

Some research has found that persons are amazingly accurate at perceiving and decoding self-touch behaviours, more so than with any other nonverbal behaviour (Hall, Carter, & Horgan, 2001). The ability to detect frustration, excitement, confusion, and boredom, among other emotions, is oftentimes perceived in others’ self-touch behaviours.

Self-touch is often associated with anxiety and nervousness. For example, people who are anxious in a social setting might touch their heads, grab their arms, or conduct other forms of self-touch, thereby sending an unfavourable impression to the receiver.

One of the earliest and most profound studies of self-touch was conducted by Morris (1971) in his book he titled Intimate Behaviour, where he outlines four basic types of self-touch:

  1. Shielding actions
  2. Cleaning actions
  3. Specialized signals
  4. Self-intimacies

These are briefly discussed below.

1.   Shielding actions

First, self-touch involves shielding actions. Shielding actions occur when the hand is brought to the head to reduce input to the senses. For example, one might put both hands over the ears at a fireworks show, or one could hold his or her nose when a foul odor is present.

2.   Cleaning actions

Second, self-touch includes cleaning actions. Cleaning actions are those of the hand being brought to the head region to wipe, scratch, or pick something. For example, picking your nose (while socially taboo) is a form of cleaning action. Another example might be wiping crumbs from your face that were left from the apple pie you just finished.

3.   Specialized signals

Third, self-touch also produces specialized signals. Specialized signals occur when the hand is brought to the head region to perform a symbolic gesture. Putting your finger over your mouth to indicate to others that they need to be silent is a case in point. Another specialized signal might include cupping your hand over your ear to indicate that someone needs to speak up in order for you to hear him or her.

4.   Self-intimacies

Finally, self-intimacies make up the fourth form of self-touch. Self-intimacies include bringing the hand to the head to echo or mimic interpersonal intimacy. For example, someone may embrace oneself to signal a romantic interest to someone else. Still another example is interlocking the hands together in the absence of a companion’s hand. Crossing one’s legs is a common form of self-touch. Clasping one’s hand on the thigh is another self-intimacy, one done mostly by women.