Oh the whole, we are neither a touch-centered nor consent-fluent society. Some cultural groups within the U.S. maintain different touch norms and communication than others but our wider mixed social and professional circles are lacking in touch and consent skills. We touch out of habit but not mindfulness. We touch for procedural purposes but rarely with full consent. Many of us don’t know how to give or receive intimate touch outside of a romantic or sexual relationship.
If you’re currently hanging out in a human-suit, odds are you fall into one of three groups: those who enjoy and seek first physical contact in a social/professional encounter, those who avoid or tolerate socially required touch just enough to get by, or those who feel indifferent but might discover an affinity one way or another if they shed the habit of casual contact and became mindful touchers instead.
Here’s what you can do to become a more intentional citizen of touch:
Ask! Ok, I feel almost silly writing this because it should be so obvious but… just ask. You can ask with your words and with your body language. Let’s say you’re being introduced to someone for the first time. Hesitate just a moment before reaching out to shake hands or opening your arms for a hug. This slight delay allows the other person to initiate or not initiate touch between you. It gives you a chance to see how they respond and collect information about how willing or reluctant they are to touch you. This hesitation is where mindfulness forms. The other person may initiate physical contact with you out of habit or out of a genuine desire to touch. If they do not initiate and you feel a genuine desire for introductory touch, you can initiate. Now it’s time to use your words (May I shake your hand? Would you like a hug? Etc.). Be prepared to warmly accept their answer and move on.
Decline. Let’s say you become more self aware through this process and discover that you don’t authentically want most casual touch offered at a greeting or departure. You get to say so! When other people reach out for socially/professionally habitual touch, you get to decide if you want to meet them there or not. Now it’s time to use your words again! (Let’s shake hands later. I’m not quite ready for that hug.)
But… won’t all this feel awkward and sound weird? Yup. It sure will. Until it becomes a habit and you’ve done it and said it enough times that you’re 100% comfortable with the words and physical cues, you’ll likely feel awkward and might even sound weird. What happens next though is amazing!
Set the Example. About half the time that I ask if someone is huggable (my way of phrasing it) I get an exclamation of enthusiasm and a hug. The rest of the time, I get very interesting comments. Usually the comments are on theme of surprise at having been asked, liking it, and thinking that they should try asking, too. Now, I think I can count on one hand the number of times that someone has turned me down for a hug. I’d guess that even after I ask, some people accept the hug simply because it feels socially expected. I still consider that a win. They leave the encounter with me aware on some level that they had the option to decline even if they didn’t take it. There is a chance the next time they are offered the option to touch or not touch, they will be able to give their authentic answer because my encounter with them laid the groundwork.
This way of being mindful, even about casual greeting/departure touch, creates change! You change how people think and behave around touch simply because you model an example of comfortable and casual consent. It takes a little practice but it is so very worth it. Please join me in the practice of asking, accepting, declining and setting examples for how we can take care of one another out there in the world.