The science of touch

The NYTimes has an excellent article that looks at what happens when people touch and concludes that:

Momentary touches — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched.

If a high five or an equivalent can in fact enhance performance, on the field or in the office, that may be because it reduces stress. A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortosil.

In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

To me, this confirms what I’ve long believed, namely that there is also value in touch in the workplace. A hand shake, a high-five, a pat on the shoulder or even a hug – all of these are simple, effective ways to create better relationships at work – and thus better communication and more mutual respect.

One of the simplest (and most fun) exercises we do, is to teach people what we call a level-five good morning, i.e. greeting your co-workers by:

  • Making eye contact
  • Adding a little extra to your greeting (like “how was your week-end”)
  • Touching the other person

In my mind, it’s a tragedy that in some workplaces all touching is avoided out of a fear of being misunderstood or inviting sexual harassment lawsuits. Yes, sexual harassment is a problem in some workplaces, but eliminating all physical contact is not a solution – it may even be part of the problem.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying you can turn a toxic workplace into a happy one by having people touch more :o) But I do believe that physical contact is a natural way of how we communicate and if you eliminate it from a workplace it will be much harder to create a happy workplace.

Many companies get it. Here’s a fun story from a Southwest Airlines employee who for the first time found himself in “hugging distance” of the company’s president Colleen Barrett.

Your take

What’s your take on touching in the workplace? What’s the culture like where you work? Hand shakes or hugs or hands-off? Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

20 thoughts on “The science of touch”

  1. Hi Alex,
    Been following your blog for some time, first comment though! Glad you picked up on this study. So important for people in the workplace to understand the power of the role of our physical and emotional “bodies.” One of the common things we find with our seminar participants and clients is a very disconnected “neck up” approach to relating to others. So the issue of body language takes on a whole new meaning with information like this.
    BTW, one thing our clients often cite when discussing these issues are the real or perceived legal restrictions for touching others within the workplace. Understandable, but also another way we maintain the isolation, that is clearly suppressing an innate need.
    Thx again,

  2. Alex,

    Our organization is very touchy about touch. The basic rule is don’t. On the other hand the nonprofit I lead is more touchy.

    Thanks for the research that says students then to volunteer if they have received positive touch. I’m passing this on to our leadership team.

    Here’s how I’m going to apply this. Give a pat on the back before someone volunteers not after.

    I’m a new reader and delighted to find you.


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Recent blog – Burn your job description

  3. I like the idea, but in the USA with all its anti harassment laws and the ease with which people sue, I would not do anything closer than a hand shake. Just to be on the safe side.

  4. Deb: … you have to agree :o) I didn’t even think about those kinds of touches in the workplace, but I’m sure that’s a good thing too.

    Louise: I like how you phrase the “neck up” approach. I always say that for many people, the body is the instrument that carries the head from one meeting to the next :o)

    And thanks for the comment – I hope to see many more from you :o)

    Dan: The sad thing is, that a “no touch” rule may seem like the safe way to go, but it may lead to worse relations in the workplace and thus an increase in mistrust and MORE harassment. Possibly – I’m theorizing here :o)

    Please let me know how the “pat” thing works!

    Gerard: I know and it sucks that just the fear of sexual harassment can lead us to draw back.

  5. Hi,
    I have been following you blog on +ve sharing for a while… And i must say that every article opens another dimension to our understanding…

    About touch, its a good idea. Generally at work, we believe in just handing over awards, certificates, give speeches, etc. But we dont bother to give a pat on the back for any commendable work.. I think even our handshakes speak a lot about the genuine emotion of the person wishing … so its good idea to inculcate a tradition of being ‘more human’ !!

  6. I’m the first one to disagree, it seems. I intensely dislike being touched by people I don’t know/trust, especially when I’m not prepared for it. A handshake is fine, it’s reciprocal and thus rarely unwanted. A pat on the shoulder – yes, maybe, if I can see that it’s coming. Someone coming up from behind and touching me when I don’t even know they’re there – that’ll lead to me yelling.

    You can’t expect that everyone is fine with random people touching them. There has to be some level of trust/intimacy *before* you start doing that.

  7. Ashish: I agree – a touch speaks louder than an award.

    Jenny: Thanks for raising this objection. People are different – some are very comfortable with touching and some are not! That’s fine and it’s important to know who in the office is hug-able and who’s not.

    I notice that you “dislike being touched by people you don’t like/trust” – well, me too :o) Hopefully, most of our co-workers are people we like and trust. If not, the workplace has deeper problems than a mere lack of touch!

  8. Working from home today… and can’t seem to find a hug in this place! :o)

    In some danish schools (the concept originates with our neighbours in Sweden) they use Tactile Back Massaging. Experiences show, that kids who touch each other, they don’t also bully each other.

    Could the boss do rounds…? :o)

  9. Thanks, Alex, for this insight. I will keep the info and for sure use the results in my work that is about internal communication.

    I once worked for a bank in Germany (well these are two locations in which you would not normally expect “personal affection” ;-)). The team was large, about 40 people worked in one open space office. It surprised me a lot that every morning, whoever arrived, walked through the whole office and greeted everybody with a handshake and some personal words. It did not matter if the team members came, the bosses from higher up or anybody from another department. It was known everywhere that here you greet everybody personally. For the first week, I found that very strange and a bit intimidating. Also, it cost a lot of time all in all. Yet afterwards, I really enjoyed it. It gave everybody the chance to get to know the colleagues a bit better, to hear what they are off to or to realize that somebody is not in or just returned from a trip or vacation. There was no need to e-mail weekly lists on who is out when. We just knew it.

    Btw, when I moved on to another job, I sort of missed it.

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  11. I work at a Trader Joe’s (a “unique” grocery store chain). The energy there is always great, and without ever thinking about it scientifically, I realize we do give high fives, pats on the back, genuine personal comments/inquiries, etc. A fellow employee/friend and I would hug when we greeted each other. All the other touches were OK with the ‘bosslady’ but this one didn’t go over well. My solution: now every time I see her, I give her a hug!

    She never hugs back, and always yells something along the lines of “Stop! She’s touching me!” but it’s in great fun.


  12. Wow. Nothing freaks me out more than when acquaintances touch me. I don’t care if I’ve known them my whole life (siblings) or if we’re working together… I think I can’t stand the complete lack of control I feel when someone places their hand on me. I don’t feel comforted. I don’t feel encouraged. In class, when teachers gripped my shoulder briefly to silently tell me “well done” all I wanted to do was shrug them off of me.

    I don’t mind if other people touch each other outside of work, or as friends or in public. Just don’t expect everyone else to want to join in, and if it is a social norm in the work place, people who don’t participate become strange, or rude, or standoffish (which might be true to some extent, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect them anyway).

    Oh well… you know what I mean. I should hope so.

  13. Alex,
    First off I would like to say I have never heard of you, not in a bad way but in a way I’m doing my own research on the science of touch and your blog happened to pop up. I understand how important touch is, but I also think there is a lot more to it than just a simple high five. A high five is fine perfectly fine, its actually a common gesture at my job. But a pat on the back or a light touch on the arm is actually signals that your brain picks up as something more than just “co-worker” friendly. Your brain picks up a lot more than your mind can process which is why touch is misunderstood most of the time, because it all falls under the perception of the person. Also if that person lacks the knowledge and understanding of what that touch means in terms of behavioral science then 9 times out of 10 they will act accordingly to what they know. I don’t disagree with you touch is very important because humans are social creatures but we cant expect everyone to know the true meaning of touch. So I think the way the work place is set up will work for now. But hopefully new understandings will be found and people will learn to open their minds up to the facts, and learn to leave beliefs out of it. :)

  14. I worked for a company where one of the assistants at the C floor was known to be a haughty and unfriendly lady. While I was standing in her office waiting for her boss to finish a meeting I noticed that she was doing those shoulder movements that tells of too much keyboarding. I asked her if she would like a shoulder rub – I just happen to be good at that. She turned into a totally different person. The following Friday she brought fresh bread in for everybody on the floor. She started to smile and say good morning to people. Needless to say we had good working relations from then on. Her boss on the other hand… that is the only time I have left a meeting and promised NOT to come back until people had learned to discuss in a decent tone. Little wonder she was unhappy.

  15. Touch, Touch is the Most Powerful Things of Human Body.. Which is use to Feel the Real Love. In the Whole day many person touch us but we never feel the real touch when someone person touch ur Body part then you will friested and u can’t think anything but that’s call a real touch.

    one more think in relationship when ur Girlfriend touch u or ur Language then u can feel easily. that’s call a science of touch through Love…

    So Touch is Connected with Love and Feelings….

  16. High fives, fist bumps, and yes, even hugs are ways I incorporate touch every day. I’m a very tactile person, anyway. I use these touches to recognize and congratulate my staff and to connect with my peers. There is an invisible line when it comes to upper management, though. No hugs there, but high fives, hand shakes, and fist bumps will do.

    One word of caution about hugging and touching, though… You need to discover whether or not people are comfortable with touching and adjust accordingly. I’m a hugger, but not everyone is, and if you try to hug someone who is uncomfortable hugging, you’ve made things worse.

    How do you know if someone is receptive to a hug? Well, you can ask. You can say something like, “I’d really like to hug you. Is that okay?” If they indicate they are not comfortable hugging, then acknowledge that and offer a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump instead.

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