Do you tend to be touchy-feely? Are you comfortable with a pat on the back, a gentle hold on an elbow or a high-five?
When we touch, how often we touch and how we respond to touch is influenced by a wide variety of factors. Each culture has varying norms about what is acceptable social touch. Families and social groups within a culture have their own norms. A 2012 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, found that men are more likely to touch women than vice versa.
And each individual has a personality style that may influence their comfort level with touch in social situations.
Social touching (for example, a pat on the shoulder) is an important part of our interactions with others. It can be calming, create bonds, express concern and solidarity, reduce anxiety and provide reassurance.
But social touch also can have negative effects. It can produce anxiety and provoke irritation and anger. If you tend to be anxious in social situations, touch is likely to spark feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment, according to a 2001 study.
Our perception of the context of the social situation and the meaning of the touch also has an impact on how welcome the touch is and how we behave once touched. George W. Bush famously created controversy around social touch when he massaged the shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The causes of the storm of criticism were many. Bush may have considered it a simple act of affection, but others considered the shoulder rub a violation of appropriate norms, an attempted display of power or even sexual harassment.
So when does social touch create a sense of camaraderie, bringing people together, and when does it cause friction and irritation?
According to a study reported on in The Wall Street Journal, situation is critical. In one study, participants competed with each other in a game for prize points. After the game, they could award competitors points. Those who had been patted by their opponents were less generous with their points.
Researchers in the study suggest that when we receive social touch in a competitive environment, we perceive it as a sign of dominance, which makes us bristle and behave less generously.
In a second study, participants were told to cooperate while completing a puzzle. In this case, those who were patted were more generous with awarding points after the game, suggesting that social touch enhanced a sense of connectedness and cooperation.
Power, dominance, and competition all matter. When you’re in a work environment and you want people to come together, you may want to consider the context of a friendly pat. It may cause people to erect barriers, rather than break them down.