Touchy-feely: Oxford research reveals where it is acceptable to touch other people
A new study which shows where people feel comfortable being touched has found that strangers should stick to shaking hands
It is a familiar social dilemma. You meet a stranger for the first time and in a split second must decide whether to offer a chilly handshake or risk offence with a kiss on the cheek.
But new research from Oxford University has found that erring on the side of caution could be the best way to put people at their ease.
The biggest study ever conducted into physical contact suggests that most people harbour an underlying reticence at being touched by a stranger anywhere but on their hands.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to greet new acquaintances with a kiss on one, or even both cheeks. But the new research indicates that people are actually perturbed by such a high level of intimacy from a stranger.
Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, said that although kissing at first meeting was now socially acceptable, people will often adopt an ‘arm hold’ manoeuvre to make the practice less alarming.
“Most people will put their hand on the arm of the person as a braking mechanism and to let the other person known that they are not about to chomp them,” he said.
“If you just launched at someone I think most people would be alarmed.
“We interpret touch depending on the context of the relationship. We may perceive a touch in a particular place from a relative or friend as a comforting gesture, while the same touch from a partner might be more pleasurable, and from a stranger it would be entirely unwelcome.
“I would guess that kissing a stranger on the cheek would still make a lot of people uncomfortable. But with modern life it has become as conventional as a handshake and so no longer seems overly-familiar, especially if you have been introduced by a friend.”
Touching is critically important in human relationships and is thought to be a relic of grooming techniques practiced by monkeys and apes who use it to form social bonds.
To see what kind of touching people find acceptable, researchers from Oxford and Finland’s Aalto University asked more than 1300 men and women from five countries to colour in areas of the human body that they would allow particular people to touch, from their partner to a stranger.
The answers were combined to create a map showing for the first time where the touchable areas of the body are for particular relationships and revealing which areas are strictly off limits.
Some results were unsurprising, such as women are generally more comfortable with being touched than men. However there were some unexpected findings, such as men would rather be touched on their genitals by a casual female acquaintance than by their own mother. For women however it would be completely taboo to be touched intimately be someone other than their partner or mother.
Unexpectedly Italians were less comfortable with being touched than Russians, while overall Finns were the most comfortable.
Prof Dunbar said that the rise of social networking and meant that people were touching each other less frequently, which could damage relationships in the long term.
“Even in an era of mobile communications and social media, touch is still important for establishing and maintaining the bonds between people,” he said, “We know that if people don’t see each other the quality of that relationship diminishes and your best friend will bump down to just an acquaintance.
“Social media does allow you to slow that decline but it doesn’t stop a relationship failing. You really need to see the whites of their eyes.”
Etiquette experts Debrett's warned that age and location may also be a factor when deciding whether to kiss or shake hands.
“Older people may not want to be kissed at all and even if they do not mind they often only expect one kiss," they advise. “Some men now kiss socially, but kissing is rare amongst the older generation and within more traditional professions or in very rural areas. An air kiss, with no contact at all, may seem rude or impersonal, but at least it is not intrusive. A very slight contact is best, and no sound effects are needed.”
Lucy Hume, a spokesperson for Debrett’s, said: “Upon greeting a stranger, offering to shake hands is the most standard gesture and is appropriate for both social and professional meetings. A handshake is never viewed as rude, and carries little risk of making anybody feel uncomfortable.
“Social kissing, although increasingly taking over from the traditional handshake, is not appropriate in all situations and on the whole it should only be used among friends, and not upon a first meeting.”
Researcher Julia Suvilehto from Aalto University said: “The results indicate that touching is an important means of maintaining social relationships. The touch space map is closely associated with the pleasure caused by touching.
“The greater the pleasure caused by touching a specific area of the body, the more selectively we allow others to touch it.”
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.