I live in America, the land of Puritanism. By Puritanism, I mean the suppression of emotions, both positive and negative. In the past, our adored forebears banned Christmas celebrations. Though we’ve changed that, we have continued some nots: Not enough smiling, not enough laughter, not enough tears, not enough touch. I don’t have anything particularly smart about smiles and laughter right now, except that here in the land of perpetual winter known as Hyde Park, Chicago, there’s very few of either. Tears have their piece already, which means it’s time to write about touch. When conflated with the broken sexuality of evangelical Protestantism and American Catholicism, it gets a little tricky. (Yes, broken sexuality is a strong charge, plus I’m not going to specify what I think is busted. Yet.)
Without much runup, here’s today’s thesis: Americans are touch-deprived. First, I’ll start by establishing the fact that Americans do not engage in much touch. Different cultures have very different standards on distance and touch in relationships. In the “Distance” section,
this government article summarizes the various levels of distance. I strongly recommend it. To take one example, “for Arabs it is normal to stay close to and touch strangers; the distance they keep in ordinary social conversations is the same as what Westerners use in intimate conversations.” The Daily Show joked about how President Bush and some Saudi leader held hands in one picture this year. It’s just Arab friendship, no matter how it was formed. In general, Mediterranean cultures, Arabs, and Latin Americans are high-contact, while Asians, northern Europeans, and Americans are low-contact. One study, reported in Business Horizons, showed that casual conversants in San Juan and Paris averaged over 100 touches per hour, while in Florida and London the rate was 1 touch or less.
Validating low touch was the easy part. Why do I consider this deprivation? Because humans respond to touch, in positive ways. How do we treat children, our most vulnerable and in need of care? We hold them. All the time. It helps them gather a sense of their environment, and groups exist to assist mentally disabled people. There are research study sources on the subject. I don’t mean “energy fields” here. Korean infants have fewer illnesses. Stress hormones decrease. Elderly folks with dementia become less behaviorally unstable. Making people healthier at little cost seems like a good idea.
Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any touch pandemic. There’s no arm in arm, or men standing next to each other, or greetings with hugs. Even the hippiest greeting, the New York double air kiss, isn’t supposed to include actual contact. I’m confused. Have I underestimated the cost? In two senses, yes, trust and affection.
First, touch is a sign of trust. From the receiver’s perspective, someone else invades my space, and I let him. Even more, they make physical contact on my only true possession, the 190 pounds or so that makes up me. Who knows what the man or woman has in mind; it’s an instinctual challenge. To let it happen, or even more appreciate the contact, means I have to not suspect the other of wanting to hurt me, poison me, kill me. There admittedly are parts of this world, even parts of this city, where that is in doubt. But I’m not there, and neither are most of those Puritanicals.
From the initiator’s perspective, touch also makes a statement. Physical acts show affection, differently than speaking to another “I like you” or “you’re great” or “I love you” or “I’m in love with you”. That requires courage. It’s not courage in the sense of running onto the beach at Normandy, knowing it’s the last day of my life. I don’t want to weaken the valorous sense of courage; I mean audacity and daring. To admit affection requires exposure. The other person might take advantage of me. The other person might reject me, or humiliate me. Bystanders might consider me weak.
At times like this, fighting the future seems almost impossible. One web musing, no matter how brilliant, won’t convert America. Heck, I haven’t even touched the confused nature of the American Sexual and Sensual. (That likely needs at least a PhD thesis.) My strategy is to stay on the boundary. Those I know that want touch receive all they desire, “all the affection and more” as someone said. Otherwise, it’s another front of Puritan emotionlessness. Sigh.