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In our last post we looked at how the meaning of hand gestures varies, depending upon one’s cultural background. Does that extend to touch? Are you a member of the two-handed handshake club? Would you rather kiss the air over someone’s shoulder rather than actually press your lips against flesh? And what is your reaction to a pat on the back? Is that collegial and friendly or condescending and unwelcome?

It turns out that there are significant differences in the cultural view of touch, as well as the research into touch. There is even a word for it. “Haptic” is defined as the study of how we use touch in communication. First – a few examples.

A few years ago President G.W. Bush’s impromptu back rub of Germany’s Chancellor Andrea Merkel made news around the world. The look on her face makes her reaction obvious. Germans, and people of Anglo-Germanic descent, are people from a culture in which the pressing of the flesh is best left to close family and friends.

In a multicultural workforce, the opportunity for crossing the line of acceptability is significant. For example, in some Asian cultures, touch is part of the power-hierarchy cultural continuum. Managers have higher status and so are permitted to touch those of a lower status, specifically their direct reports. The touch doesn’t go in both directions.

On the Democratic side of the political aisle, there were complaints about former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is of Hispanic descent. His Lieutenant Governor complained to an Albuquerque Journal reporter that she tried to avoid him at events because, “He pokes me. He pinches my neck. He touches my hip, my thigh, sort of the side of my leg.”

To add to the confusion, a recent study conducted at the University of Minnesota indicated that touch, even a brief touch of the elbow, resulted in an increase from 28 percent (without touch) to 68 percent (with touch) among people who were asked to give money back that they had found on the ground.  Another study by the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration reported that being touched by a server increased the tips left by customers for that server. The touching in that study consisted of:

1) no touch at all

2) a one-and-a-half second touch on the shoulder

3) touched twice on the palm for one-half second each.

In all cases eye contact was avoided. The corresponding tip percentages were:

1) 12 percent

2) 14 percent

3) 17 percent.

The cultural differences in touch frequency were illustrated in another study which looked at casual conversations in outdoor cafes in Florida, London and San Juan, Puerto Rico. A total of 189 touches were recorded per hour in San Juan, two per hour in Florida and in London? Zero. Nada. Zilch. None.

This is not to suggest that touching, or not touching, is right or wrong or somewhere between. It is suggesting that one should think before touching, and try not to over-think the touches from people who are from other cultures.

Source: Leadership Excellence Essentials, “Why You Should Reach Out and Touch Someone,” Carol Kinsey Goman, March, 2014