Touching Norms

Touching Norms in Contact & Non-contact Societies

TactileOpens in new window and proxemic communicationOpens in new window are similar in one important respect. Both are governed by an implicit set of norms that specify what types of behavior are acceptable in our society.

When we violate either touching or proxemic norms, we usually make those with whom we interact uncomfortable. The absence of touching by others may be taken as a sign that the untouched person is insignificant and unimportant.

Paradoxically, one who is touched too much is apt to be labeled as a person of inferior status. We live in a noncontact society, where limited touching in public is the norm.

Touching norms dictate that even friends and intimates refrain from anything beyond perfunctory touching in public; touching among strangers is deemed to be deviant.

Walker (1975) demonstrated the strength of touching norms in our society by asking strangers to touch each other during encounter-group exercises. He found that strangers who were forced to touch each other perceived the tactile contact as difficult, stress producing, and psychologically disturbing.

Proxemic and tactile behavior are obviously interrelated in the sense that people must be close enough to one another for touching to be possible. Obviously, two individuals must be no father separated from each other than intimate distance (0 to 11/2 ft if touching is to occur comfortably).

Touching and close proximity both signal a desire for closeness and immediacyOpens in new window, although the physical act of touching may require greater physical proximity than is appropriate in public.

A number of professionals such as nurses, gynecologists, masseurs, and beauticians are allowed to communicate at a distance known as intimate distanceOpens in new window because the kind of touch they employ is defined as nonsocial rather than personal.

Such professionals rely on touch in their jobs. A beautician, for example, has to touch the customer’s hair, perhaps to move it, cut it, curl it, dry it, straighten it, etc.

A nurse has to touch patients in order to take their blood pressure, take their pulse, take their temperature, or perform other hospital or clinic functions. These forms of touch are generally accepted without hesitation on the part of the customer or the patient.

Doctors obviously have to touch their patients to care for them. Therapists have to touch muscles or body parts in order to get patients healthy. We all know that these touches are part of the professional’s job.

A line can be crossed, however, as some touch is unwelcome, aggressive, or outright violent. Just ask a victim of spousal abuse or an athlete who was punched in the face by an opposing player.

Touching norms that have developed in our society have been most strongly influenced by two factors:

  1. the region of the body that is touched, and
  2. the demographic variables that differentiate one communicator from another (i.e., gender, race, age, status, and culture).

Successful communicators will not only exhibit an awareness of what regions of the body may be touched in specific contexts but will also understand that the gender, race, age, status, and culture of the interactants dictate what type and how much touching is socially acceptable.

Jourard (1966) has divided the body into the 24 regions that may be touched. His research indicates that opposite-sex friends may touch nearly all body regions. Touching of the head, shoulders, and arms occurs most frequently, but touching in other regions of the body is also acceptable. In general, touching of same-sex friends should be confined to shoulders, arms, and hands.

Touching norms for males and females differ, however, and this difference seems to be reflected in their tactile behavior. Walker (1975) found, for example, that the amount of nonreciprocal touching exhibited by female pairs in sensitivity groups increased as the groups continued to meet, but touching of male pairs decreased over time.

Heterosexual males are reluctant to touch or to be touched by another male because their masculinity is threatened by the homosexual connotations of tactile contact.

Although touching norms dictate that intimates may touch “personal regions” of the body, nonintimates must confine touching to “impersonal regions” of the body. Communicators generally conform to this touching norm (Wilis, Rinck, & Dean, 1978).

Accordingly, touch among strangers should be confined primarily to the hand-to-hand contact associated with greetings and farewells. Touching norms that specify what regions of the body may be touched by whom seem to have remained relatively constant over time, although recent research suggests that opposite-sex friends are now engaging in an increasing amount of touching in the body areas between the chest and knees (Major, 1980).

A handshake between strangers may not always be appropriate. Some prefer hugs or having their knuckles meet, as often exhibited by friends in a celebratory mood. Howie Mandel, host of NBC’s game show hit Deal or No Deal, tells contestants not to shake his hands. He simply extends his closed knuckles out to meet their closed knuckles. Mandel has obsessive-compulsive disorder and washes his hands 20 or more times per day (“The Real Deal with Howie,” 2006). We need to recognize that some touching behaviors or lack thereof is not a sign of unfriendliness but of illness instead.

Appropriate tactile communication requires familiarity with the demographic variables that exert a major influence on touching norms. These touching norms dictate that the gender, race, age, and status of the interactants all be considered—as singly discussed below—before we are in a position to exhibit socially appropriate tactile behavior.

Touching Norms Shaped by Gender

Gender is clearly an important variable. The normative expectation is that the most touching should occur among opposite-sex friends. In both intimate and professional relationships, men are expected to touch women much more frequently than they are touched by women, and this is usually the case.

Two decades ago, Major and Williams (1981) found that male-to-female touch was the most frequent type of touch (females touched children of both sexes more frequently than did men). In same-sex interaction, touch among women has previously been found to be more frequent than it is among men. Whatever the sex of the interactants, however, the cultural norm dictates that the amount of touching be increased as their relationship becomes more personal (Major, 1980).

An interesting study about touching norms in athletes was done by Kneidinger, Maple, and Tross (2001) in which they examined male and females differences on the sports field. In support of Major’s research in the 1980s, they found that female athletes touched each other more often than male athletes did.

Interestingly, females touched each other more at home games, while male athletes were more likely to touch one another in away games. Perhaps this is partly due to the stigma place on male-male touch in our most immediate “known” environment. In general, women are far more likely to engage in same-sex touch than are men (Floyd, 2000).

Yet, in light of the research that indicates reluctance on the part of men to do same-sex touch, male athletes often touch one another more often than you might realize. Consider the following examples.

Male athletes often exchange high fives with their hands extended in the air and firm slaps to indicate celebration or victory. In football and basketball, male athletes often do a body five, a maneuver where the two men jump up in the air and their chests meet.

Besides the celebratory function, there is a comfort function to touch for male athletes. If a kicker misses a field goal or a ballplayer strikes out, a teammate may pat him on the back or shake his hand. Generally, male athletes do not hug; that behavior is more likely to be seen in female sports teams than in male teams.

In a study on gender patterns in social touch, Major, Schmidlin, and Williams (1990) provided support for results from some earlier studies that had come under increasing challenge, and they greatly expanded our knowledge of the relative frequency with which men and women touch and are touched when interacting with members of their own gender and with each other. In particular, they found the following to be true:

  • Females are significantly more likely to be the recipients of touch than males.
  • Male-to-female touch is significantly more frequent than female-to-male touch.
  • Females have more positive attitudes toward same-sex touching than do males.
  • Touch between females, by far the most frequent type of touch, is more frequent than touch between males.
  • Cross-sex touch is more frequent than same-sex touch.
  • Females more frequently touch children than do males.

Clearly the attitudes of men and women toward touching and their actual tactile behavior vary substantially. Since interpersonal touch is very important in both opposite-sex and same-sex communication, gender differences deserve particular attention. We must recognize, for example, that women in the United States consistently report more positive attitudes to same-gender touch than do their male counterparts (Willis & Rawdon, 1994).

In fact, men have a much more homophobic attitude toward same-gender touch than do women, which in turn seems to affect their touching behavior directly. Men touch their same-sex acquaintances less frequently than do women (Floyd, 2000; Roese, Olson, Borenstein, Martin, & Shores, 1992).

The touching pattern that emerges reflects a gender asymmetry that confirms early findings that high-status individuals are more likely to touch low-status individuals than vice versa. Henley (1977) maintained that the different touching norms for men and women perpetuate the idea that men have superior power and status.

Women who touch men in professional settings must be aware that such touching is often interpreted as a sign of unseemly sexual advance. In contrast, the disproportionate amount of touching of women by men gives the edge in asserting their dominance over women.

One study reports that sexual orientation affects perceptions of “appropriate” touching norms between same-sex and opposite-sex pairs. Indeed, heterosexual men and women were likely to condone touching between male-female and female-female pairs, but not male-male pairs.

On the other hand, homosexual men and women saw no difference between male-male touching norms compared with those for other pairs of interactants. This study further confirms that much of our touching norms in society are culture-based (Derlega, Catanzaro, & Lewis, 2001).

Touching Norms Shaped by Race

Race is also a potentially important determinant of touching norms. There is some evidence to suggest that tactile contact is much more frequent among blacks than among whites.

In one study of racial touching patterns (Smith, Willis, & Gier, 1980), blacks touched each other on average 29.03 times per hour and whites touched each other only 9.87 times per hour. Consistently with previous findings, white males touched each other less frequently than any other sex race dyad. However, black males touched each other almost twice as often as white females.

The available evidence does seem to point to a discernible touching pattern. When interacting with each other, blacks prefer and exhibit more touching than whites. However, both blacks and whites touch members of their own race much more frequently than they touch members of the other race ( Smith et al., 1980; Willis et al., 1978).

Touching Norms Shaped by Age

Age has also proved to be an important factor in the development of touching norms. Age-related touching norms specify that high rates of touching are most appropriate for the young and the old. As might be expected, rates of touching are high during the first five years of a child’s life.

Recent research suggests that infants depend on touch for important communication functions. They need to feel loved and cared for, and touch is instrumental to that end (Field, 2002; Herenstein, 2002). Furthermore, touch in the early years of life has been associated with children’s developing self-confidence and self-esteem (Jones & Brown, 1996).

Are you from a family of huggers? If so, chances are you feel more included and think more highly of yourself.

Frequency of touching has been observed to decrease from kindergarten through junior high, however. This finding may be attributed in part to the fact that the identity crisis experienced by young people makes the initiation of tactile communication difficult.

Because tactile communication Opens in new window is one of the most intimate forms of communication, the initiation of tactile contact may be doubly difficult. During the high school years, opposite-sex touch becomes more frequent, presumably because of the important functions of such touch in courtship and in sexual relationships.

Finally, the amount of touching characteristically exhibited during the adult years seems to remain relatively constant until retirement age approaches. At that point, frequency of touching behavior increases markedly (Major, 1980).

In one study, elderly patients in nursing homes were analyzed. Researchers found that elderly patients were touched much more often in nursing homes than by nurses in the community (Caris-Verhallen, Kerkstra, & Bensing, 1999).

In addition, researchers have discovered that the elderly enjoy foot massages. The massaging touch helps to relieve the stress and anxiety often experienced by older patients (Jirayingmongkol, Chantein, Phengchomjan, & Bhanggananda, 2002).

Touching Norms Shaped by Status

Status also exerts a major influence on touching norms. High-status individuals touch low-status individuals much more frequently than they are touched by low-status individuals. Henley (1977) maintains that the “touching privilege” not only reliably identifies the high-status person but is reserved almost exclusively for their use.

The status of touchers seems to affect directly the amount of nonreciprocal touching they initiate. Watson (1975) studied the amount of touching of patients by staff members in a home for the elderly. He found that the higher the rank of the nursing staff member, the greater the amount of touching of the patients.

Nurses touched patients much more frequently than aides, and aides touched patients much more frequently than orderlies. Low-status individuals seem intuitively to recognize that the touching norm specifies that the amount of touching they initiate should be limited. Thus, Watson (1975) concluded that “the frequent omissions of touching behavior by orderlies suggested a clear relation between low status in the nursing hierarchy and social constraint against touching” (p. 107).

Touching Norms Shaped by Culture

Finally, the culture of communicators is an important determinant of the frequency of the various types of touching they exhibit and receive. Cultures are divided on the basis of those that are noncontact and those that are contact. Touching occurs more frequently in contact than in noncontact cultures. As one moves from north to south in Europe, for example, the amount of tactile contact increases.

Whereas a young female from the United States might be shocked if she received a pinch on a buttock from a decorous British male her own age, she would probably anticipate this type of tactile contact from a same-aged Italian male. Touching is considerably more frequent in contact cultures that include Arabs, Latin Americans, and southern Europeans than in noncontact cultures such as northern Europeans and Americans (Collier, 1985).

More recent research has called into question the traditional norms of contact and noncontact cultures’ impact upon tactile development and touching norms. Indeed, in their research, McDaniel and Andersen (1998) suggest that a variety of cultures (except in Asian nations) engage in a variety of touching norm ranges. In fact, the United States and northern European nations have a significant number of touching behaviors (a statistic once reserved only for “contact” cultures).

Dibiase and Gunnoe (2004) found that both Italians and Czechs touch more often than Americans, however. Their study revealed that Italian and Czech cultures use more hand touches and non-hand touches than do Americans. Indeed, the Czech culture engages twice as often in hand touches and almost three times as often in non-hand touches.

Interestingly, men in the Czech culture hand-touch twice as often as do women, while women in that same culture non-hand-touch about twice as often as do men. There is almost no difference for American men and women in either category.

In a similar, study, Remland, Jones, and Brinkman (1995) found that touching norms are more visible in contact cultures (i.e., Asians—except Japanese and Singaporeans—North Americans, and northern Europeans).

Normative touching practices and patterns within a given culture should not be equated with what is desirable. The distinction here is between what is and what ought to be. Until we expand our knowledge of tactile communication, a detailed set of guidelines that spell out desirable, culture-specific touching behaviors is probably not realistic.

At the same time, a communicator who is thoroughly familiar with the touching norms in her or his society should be in a much better position to use tactile communication in a way that is both sensitive and socially appropriate.

Touching norms shaped by sex dictate that opposite-sex friends should touch the most, and males should touch each other the least. Men often use the touching privilege—which allows them to touch women more frequently than they are touched by women—to assert their dominance over women.

Racial touching norms result in a higher rate of touching among blacks than whites but a lower rate of interracial touching. Touching norms based on age specify that it is appropriate for the young and old to engage in the most frequent tactile contact. Finally, status norms dictate that the high-status person is the toucher and the low-status person the touched.

Touching norms are closely related to the concept of touch avoidanceOpens in new window, which is discussed in another entry.