U can’t touch this

photo credit: Fine Art America
photo credit: Fine Art America

Another day, another piece of pointless research. This time from Oxford University, along the lines of ‘where we allow people to touch us depends on the strength of our social bond with them.’ Really? You don’t say… still it’s good to know that there’s spare cash to throw at academia, even if the rest of the planet is struggling with austerity.

Despite my cynicism, there were some interesting observations about national traits, alongside the more obvious points. Reading about it touched a nerve for me and made me think about how we interact. Most of all, it took my mind off the depressing fact that yet another of my favourite things in life is deemed carcinogenic. Not that it’s news that sausages are bad for you, but still. Enough is enough I say. You may take our fags, you may take our booze…but you will never take…our BACON!!

Back to the research. More than 1300 men and women from five different countries, were asked to colour in areas of a map of the body that they were comfortable with other people touching and in relation to who they were e.g. partner, colleague, friend etc.  Several no brainers were uncovered. Women are generally uncomfortable with men touching most of the areas of their body (aside from partners) and men did not like anyone of either gender touching their genitals (presumably unless invited).   So far, so duh.

To no-one’s surprise, British people liked being touched the least, compared to France, Italy, Finland and Russia. However, the Finns are the most comfortable with it and the Italians were less comfortable with being touched than the Russians. So bang goes our stereotype of voluble, overly-emotional Italians, crying, hugging and touching everyone. And you might wonder what is going on over in Finland…

Perhaps it’s a heat thing. Those of us in the northern climes of the Western world are frankly sick to the back teeth of advertising stereotypes about how everyone in the Mediterranean is so wonderful: they’re always napping, their diet is great and they all live to be 100 years old, despite drinking wine every day, eating endless carbs and smoking Gauloise. Alongside this picture of physical health, we also see blue skies and beautiful tanned people, eating long lunches al fresco, gesticulating wildly, laughing and looking happy, healthy and huggy.

The reverse picture of Northern Europeans might be of rainy and cold skies, buttoned-up, grey and dour people. The weather situation may be more similar from Britain to Scandinavia, (although I can’t help a sneaking suspicion that they are much sunny/colder and we are more grey/rainy here); certainly in Scotland, there is an ever growing tendency to compare and align ourselves with our Nordic cousins. NB I often wonder about this – is it purely about the cold or the lack of sunlight? When I think about blonde, vigorously healthy, well-to-do Swedes for example, I would class them as ‘human species most unlike Scots’.

Anyway aside from that, what if, in actual fact, people from colder countries needed to huddle up for warmth? Maybe they need less physical contact in Italy. When you think about having a siesta in a hot, clammy, exhausting country, you would probably want to have an actual snooze, unless you were physically horny at the time. Ideally, with no-one touching you, as that would only make you more sweaty and hot.

There is a relevant question here, one to which I don’t have the answer. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that touchy-feeliness is about the free expression of emotion. And we are not necessarily talking here about sex, or the even the negative intent of violent physical contact, just ‘harmless’ touching. But it might be about having the ability to ask for help and comfort when we are feeling less positive (e.g. I feel crap, I need a hug). In other words, emotional intelligence.

So my question is this: if we come from similar social, political and geographical landscapes to Scandinavia (and possibly Russia, but less so), why are we Brits so buttoned up and anti-touching? And over there, it seems they are rampantly flinging their clothes off to get naked in saunas (or something like that)? Even in Russia, the land of totalitarianism, it seems they are more comfortable with hugging than us.

I genuinely don’t know the answer to this question, but it’s sad.   Because this is about a basic human desire for physical contact – we need it like the animals we are. Sometimes this might be about sex, but more often it’s about simpler things: hugging, gestural touching (even momentarily), hand holding or cuddling. Even the satisfaction of ape-like grooming – picking bits of fluff or dirt from those that we love. The satisfaction of removing massive chunks of wax from your child’s ears cannot be underestimated!

There was a quotation from one of the researchers that while semi-obvious, struck home because it was blatantly stated:

‘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.’

So yes, humans have noticed that you get more pleasure from certain bits of your body, so you don’t necessarily want people to go around touching it all the time. Fair dos. What depresses me is that we seem to be unable to distinguish between the physical contact we need because we are human animals, and that which is purely for sexual pleasure. A head massage creates a lot of stimulus and pleasure which is not sexual. But who would we allow to give us this apart from our partners, or the shampoo girl at the hairdressers?

Here’s my personal view on it: I think as human beings, we need non-sexual, physical contact almost every day. That contact could be as small as a light touch on the arm, an air kiss or a brief hug. The longer we go without even the smallest of human touches, the more isolated and crazy we become. This kind of touch is about love, kindness and compassion. We need it to know that other people care whether we live or die, that we are connected, that they can share our joy or pain.

It’s tough in this hyper sexualised world that we live in. It’s tough if you are single. Hands up any singleton who has ever taken someone to their bed for the night, when all they really wanted was a cuddle? That’s been me back in the past. Or anyone who has ended up having sex with their partner when all they really wanted was a hug (I’m not talking about rape here, just things that went a different way)? It’s happened to everyone I reckon.

The trouble we have is with vulnerability. When you need a shag you are horny – it’s about need and desire. Sure, you will wind up in a situation where you are physically vulnerable because you are naked with another person, but you could be locked down tight emotionally as Fort Knox. You could forget all about it the next day and it could (as people are always saying) mean nothing. But what kind of world are we living in where it’s easier to get a quick fuck than admit that we are lonely and want someone just to put their arms round us for a little while?

An extremely bizarre one is the answer. Yet, I’ve known brave people in the past, friends or work acquaintances, who have had the balls to say ‘ I feel shit today, can I have a hug?’ And I will always oblige, because as a human being, unless particularly grumpy, why would I not empathise? Plus to be honest, I need one too. Who doesn’t?  I get that people have had different experiences that can make ‘normal’ touching hard for them and you should not be launching yourself on people. You should always respect people’s boundaries. Some people say they don’t like it, that they are not huggers. Bollocks I say. Unless you’ve had a traumatic experience that screwed you up, if you’re a human, you’re a hugger of some description. If you’re not keen on people, you’ve probably got a pet, or some kind of rubber companion for the bad days.

My point is this: we’re all terrified, we’re all full of bullshit and we all need human reassurance through physical contact.   In some ways, for those of us who are single and have children it’s easier. You have someone that sees you the centre of their world, and who will unashamedly fling their arms around you on a daily basis. It might be temporary (the centre of the world thing) but it’s bliss. And it reminds us that we are loved. Not all single people have that luxury.

For everyone else…well, you will be loved by someone. It’s just that adults can be shit at telling each other, especially if they’re not in a romantic relationship and feel compelled to. So FFS, if your friends don’t already know that you love them, then give them a big hug to let them know. And don’t be afraid to let them know when you need one. If we can get better at this, then I believe there are a million other things we humans will get better at.

Jeezo, I feel like a bit of a hippy bastard today.  Okay, yes, I am an ex-hippy.   There’s my admission: I am human. I am vulnerable. Gies a hug.

Until next time


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