Reach out and touch someone.

Of course, there was no way it could have actually been a crime scene, but I certainly did a double-take as I walked across the Stanford campus just now.

For there, on the asphalt, were two life-size chalked human outlines, and although it was hard for me to tell if they’d been drawn around real people, they certainly had a kind of CSI look about them.

The outlines were positioned more or less head-to-head, but what particularly drew me to them was that the two individuals’ hands overlapped each other’s, giving the effect of them holding hands.

Just to avoid any misinterpretation, the artist had added a little heart and the initials “M+I.”

If you come across something like this, it’s no accident that you could use the word “touching” to describe it. Touch can be such an important part of our interconnections with others.

Although I guess that’s obvious in intimate relationships, that’s not the path I’m taking today.

No, I’m thinking more about small physical contacts that can gently enrich our connections with others.

Before we go anywhere, let’s acknowledge that some people definitely don’t enjoy any kind of touch, especially from anyone they don’t know well, so it’s important to be super-mindful of not offending or upsetting others by crossing their boundaries.

If you’re not sure exactly where those boundaries are drawn, it’s generally better to err on the side of caution. Although it might be tempting (you never know), probably best to avoid a full-on hug with the driver as you board the Number 27, for example.

But having said this, touch is such a powerful phenomenon.

It was, after all, the very first sense you acquired as a baby.

No wonder it has such strong associations, then. And it may help to explain why different kinds of touch can convey different kinds of emotions.

In 2009, psychologist Matthew Hertenstein ran an experiment in which volunteers were asked to communicate a list of eight emotions to a blindfolded stranger, solely using touch.

So, when prompted to communicate either anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, or sadness, how did the volunteers do?

Remarkably, accuracy rates were as high as 78%, demonstrating that a simple touch can say a heck of a lot.

Another experiment in 1976 involved university librarians returning library cards either with or without briefly touching the student’s hand.

When interviewed shortly afterwards, students who’d been touched rated both librarian and library more favourably, even when they hadn’t noticed the touch.

Although – as we’ve said – some people dislike being touched, the right kind of contact can be welcome for many.

And it’s one of those areas of life where it doesn’t seem to matter who goes first.

Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the awesome-sounding Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine explains that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as the person being hugged.

What’s more, when there’s nobody within touching distance, experts say even self-touch can be a powerful calming mechanism.

Hugging yourself, massaging your forehead, rubbing your hands together, stroking your neck, can all feel good. In fact these kinds of self-soothing behaviours have been shown to slow heart rate and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Please keep other people’s boundaries in mind, of course, but maybe you’ll find opportunities in the next couple of days to add depth to your connections with others through the often-neglected power of touch?

It certainly appears to be working for M and I.

That’s “M+I,” of course. Not M and me.

6 thoughts on “Reach out and touch someone.

  1. Jon, your topics have a delightful synchronicity about them, at least for me. Thank you for this one. Touch has always been an important part of my life, even though I’ve hit a bit of a dry spell these past few years with friends having left the Bay Area, a failed romantic relationship last year, and my long-term roommate (think Will & Grace) being quite touch adverse. I can cajole my way into hugs by appealing to roommate’s INTP left-brained nerd nature by reminding him that a 20-second hug promotes oxytocin release to help lessen depression and anxiety. Yes, it’s deceptively self-serving. But since the hugs benefit us both, I don’t feel too guilty about it.

    As John Lennon sang, “whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right.” Especially when it comes to increasing empathy and warm physical connection with others, something our society seems to be sorely lacking these days.

    1. It’s so true, Judi, about society seeming to lack empathy and warm connection with others. Glad to hear that you’ve found a way to persuade your roommate into venturing into uncharted territory, though. Thanks for making me smile.

  2. What a wonderful, thoughtful message, Jon. I experienced the power of the hug when I was managing a remote team in Dallas a few years back. I flew down to Texas to meet my team for the first time and before I left, I felt compelled to give them hugs. (I’d probably get reported for sexual harassment now!). What stuck with me was when I went to hug one of the guys in our group, he said, “Oh good! You’re a hugger!” I think those hugs went a long way to forming a lasting bond with my team. We became a very tight-knit group despite the fact we were working remotely.

  3. Thank you Jon for another thought provoking post, it made me think of the song by Diana Ross ,
    ‘Reach out and touch
    somebody’s hand
    Make this world a better place
    If you can……..

    Also whilst at work today, I work within a school and all the Yr11 students got their exam results today. Whilst giving out envelopes in the school hall, one particular young lady came running over to me clutching her envelope saying ‘aah my favourite invigilator’ and gave me a big hug …,, it made me feel great !

    1. Well, that was fantastic, Janis, wasn’t it? In my day, I seem to recall invigilators appearing very grumpy and unapproachable, so the very thought of having a favourite one seems almost impossible, let alone giving them a big hug! What a great impact you’re obviously having on the students. Thank you for such a super story.

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