Tactile Communication

What is Tactile Communication ?

Humans communicate emotionsOpens in new window through a variety of channelsOpens in new window but one of the earliest to develop, and perhaps most powerful, is the sense of touch. The relationship of the sense of touch to communication of emotional state is observed in language, for example the English word “feeling”.

When we talk about touch as a medium of communication, there are probably some things you already know and some you don’t know. You probably do not know that a large part of your brain is devoted to receiving and interpreting messages communicated by the skin.

Similarly, you may not know that your skin accounts for 20 percent of your body weight, or that there are more than a half-million receptor sites on your skin that pick up tactile contact from others and transmit a signal to your brain as to the type of touch made.

Tactile communication, therefore, refers to all the ways our skin affects and reacts to other forms of bodily contact either from others or ourselves and signals a message that has at least one meaning.

  • According to Collier (1985) “touching is one of the most powerful means for establishing and maintaining social contact” (p.27).

Stephen Thayer, professor of psychology at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writes that “Other means of communication can take place at a distance, but touch is the language of physical intimacy. And because it is, touch is the most powerful of all communication channels—and the most carefully guarded and regulated” (1988, p. 31).

Touch communicates many different things. Touch has substantial communicative potential, but this potential has not been fully explored. A number of factors can be attributed to this.

  • First, many individuals have accepted the misconception that touch is a primitive sense and, therefore, has limited value in the transmission and reception of meanings in interpersonal communication.
  • Second, ironic as it may seem, ours is a society with strong inhibition and taboos about touching others.
  • Finally, much less empirical research has been done on touch than on other types of nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and eye behaviours.

Consequently, we lack a sufficiently precise and detailed terminology to describe the modalities used to touch others, to define the more particularized meanings communicated by touch, and to pinpoint the impact of a variety of personality and demographic variables on the quantity and quality of touching done in interpersonal contexts.

Despite our limited knowledge about touch, we should not underestimate the important impact of touch on successful interpersonal communication. Although touch cannot communicate the highly specialized emotions that can be communicated by facial expressions Opens in new window or vocal cues Opens in new window, but this should not obscure the fact that touch often serves as the last medium available to the elderly and the critically ill to communicate feelings.

As a means of communicating caring, comfort, affection, and reassurance, touch is the preeminent sense.

The Semantics of Touch

The semantics of touch is not a simple matter. In a professional setting, for example, a man touching a woman can communicate a distinctively different meaning than would result from a woman touching a man.

The meaning of touch are affected not only by who touches whom but by the type of touch. Nguyen, Heslin, and Nguyen (1975) identified four different types of touches: a pat, a squeeze, a brush, and a stroke. The squeeze and the brush seem to communicate meaning that varies with the context. In contrast, a pat is usually interpreted to mean that the toucher is playful and friendly, whereas the stroke signals affection and sexual desire.

Twelve different meanings can be communicated by touch: support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual interest or attraction, affection, playful affection, playful aggression, compliance, gaining attention, announcing a response, greeting, and departure.

In a general sense, these tactile meanings are used to express interpersonal attitudes. More specifically, they are to be used singly or in combination to serve the four primary functions of touch: the support function, the power function, the affiliation function, and the aggression function.

See Also: The Communicative Functions of TouchOpens in new window