Socially Polite Touch

What Is Socially Polite Touch?

Socially polite touches are relatively formal and governed by social norms and rules of politeness. In fact, Jones and Yarbrough (1985) labeled this type of touch “ritualistic.” Many forms of socially polite touch occur during greetings and departures. Handshakes are a common type of ritualistic touch used in business situations or when meeting people at social functions for the first time.

social polite touch by business investors
social polite touch by business investors. Image courtesy of MarketriOpens in new window

Across two studies, between 61% and 78% of patients reported that they prefer having a doctor who shakes their hand when greetings them (Davis, Wiggins, Mercado, & O’Sullivan, 2007; Makoul, Zick, & Green, 2007).

Increasingly, people are using virtual handshakes in situations involving teleconferencing or other technologies (Paterson, 2006), which shows how important touch is in business situations.

Research has shown that individuals develop a fairly consistent handshake, so that the way you shake hands with one person is similar to the way you shake hands with another person. During initial interactions, there is a fairly strong relationship between style of handshaking and first impressions.

Specifically, people who shake hands with a firm, complete (but not hard) grip while giving eye contact are rated more positively than people who offer a weaker handshake. Individuals who are extroverted and open to new experiences are more likely to have firm handshakes, and men tend to give firmer handshakes than women (Chaplin, Phillips, Brown, Clanton, & Stein, 2000).

Pats to the shoulder, arm, or lower back are also sometimes used as part of greetings and departure rituals. Although these types of touch are common within U. S. culture, some research suggests that overweight individuals receive less casual touch, such as handshakes and pats on the arm, than do other individuals (Holmes, 2005). This discrepancy in tactile behavior directed toward overweight and non-overweight individuals is a subtle form of discrimination that most people probably do not notice.

Researchers have also examined the timing of haptic behavior in relation to verbal statements during greetings and departures. Jones and Yarbrough (1985) found that people tend to verbally greet (“Hi, it’s nice to meet you”) or depart (“I’ll miss you”) from others before or during the touch, rather than after.

Thus, if you observed people’s behavior at a business meeting, you would likely see people introduce themselves right before or during a handshake. Similarly, if you observed behavior at airports, you would likely see people touching right before the passenger moved toward the departure gate.

Other types of socially polite touches include guiding an elderly person or child across the street, touching someone’s arm in a crowded room to avoid bumping into them, and lining up and touching the hands of the players of an opposing team after a ball game.

All of these types of touch coincide with rules of social appropriateness. Therefore, they typically send a message of politeness rather than of intimacy. Interestingly, Guerrero and Ebesu (1993) found that young children do not use socially polite touches very often, presumably because they have not yet learned all the rules of social appropriateness.

Touch can also be used in conjunction with verbal messages to help people present socially polite messages. A study by Trees and Manusov (1998) examined how nonverbal behaviors, including touch, help soften messages that could threaten a person’s self-image.

In their study, people evaluated how polite a criticism about a friend was. When the criticism was delivered using supportive nonverbal behaviors, including touch, a pleasant facial expression, and a soft voice, the study’s participation perceived it to be more polite.