Touch in Different Cultures
Touch is a fundamental requirement for our wellbeing, yet the amount of touch people receive across different cultures varies significantly.
Touch has been used for healing purposes by different cultures for millennia. In her book, Touch, Dr Tiffany Field notes that the Ebers Papyrus dated to 1553BC, “showed the early practice of healing by touch.” In 400BC, hand healers in Greece were called ‘kheirourgos’, which is the origin of the word ‘surgeon’. Meanwhile in Rome, Galen was a famous healer who used massage as a form of treatment. Even the Bible shows the laying on of hands as a way of healing those with a range of conditions and diseases.
Field writes that many cultures today still understand the importance of touch and some cultures live skin-to-skin, starting early on by passing their babies from person to person, regardless of their age. Yet many cultures around the world have lost touch and wellbeing levels are suffering as a result. Edward Hall developed a theory that cultural norms are one of the most crucial factors in determining social distance and touch between people. He believed there were two groups of cultures: “contact cultures” and “non-contact cultures”.
Higher contact cultures stand closer to each other, make more eye contact, speak louder and incorporate touch more frequently. Examples of high contact cultures include those from the Middle East, Latin America and Southern Europe. Conversely, low contact cultures may stand further away when talking, maintain less eye contact and usually steer clear of touch. It’s been suggested that low contact cultures tend to rely on verbal communication and have greater visual needs. An example would be the Far East. Hall stated that North America and Northern Europe were also non-contact cultures, however, others have sought to classify them as moderate contact cultures.
In the US or the UK, a handshake may be considered appropriate for meeting someone new. Whereas in France, a kiss on both cheeks is common. If a child is touched on the head in North America, that would be seen as fine, however, the head is considered sacred in Asia and this would be disrespectful. To shake hands or accept a gift with your left hand in the Middle East is seen to be rude, as this hand is used for bodily hygiene purposes. An interesting piece of research took place in cafes around the world and recorded the number of times two people sharing coffee touched each other per hour, evidencing the wide disparity in regards to how much we engage in touch. In London they recorded 0 touches per hour, in Florida 2 per hour, Paris 110 per hour and San Juan, more than 180 per hour.
To try and understand why some cultures are more open to touch than others, researchers began looking for correlations and discovered that warmer climates can affect emotional intensity, which may be related to closer interpersonal contacts. Studies have shown that the higher the annual temperature of a country, the closer the social distance between people and strangers. Another hypothesis proposes that hotter climates favour a friendlier environment, thereby encouraging people to stand closer. Interestingly, warmer climates seem to have more socio-emotionally oriented cultures, whereas cooler climates have more task-oriented cultures; perhaps because cooler climates require more collaboration for survival.
However, other factors can’t be discounted, such as the age of the individuals, their gender (and existing cultural views of gender), their status, the topic of the conversation, the opinion of one individual about the other and their relationship.
Indeed research by the University of Oxford and Finland’s Aalto University, seems to flip this theory on its head. Study participants came from Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the UK. The results showed that some nationalities were less open to touch. British participants came bottom of the touchability index, as might be expected. However, there were some interesting results as Robin Dunbar, one of the researchers explained for an article in the Atlantic, “We hadn’t expected the Finns to turn out to be the most cuddly people… or that the Italians are almost as un-cuddly as the Brits.”
The fact that physical contact has such strong cultural meanings shows that it’s a vital element of non-verbal communication around the world. Becoming more tactile as a culture can increase the health benefits for society as a whole. As our societies become more disconnected, as loneliness becomes more prevalent and as mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression increase, maybe we as a social species need to return to high contact cultures to truly thrive during these challenging times.