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The Body Language of Touch

Updated: May 10, 2021

Babies need it, grandparents thrive on it, and bankers are less reluctant to lend money when they get it. What is it? Human touch! (Current COVID-19 protocols aside of course!)

As I discussed in Chapter Five of my book What Every Body is Saying, children need to be lovingly touched so that they can grow up feeling safe and nurtured, but even adults can use a good hug every once in a while. We have all read that premature babies need to be stroked to improve their circulation and immune system and the elderly thrive on physical contact even from visiting dogs. The rest of us can also benefit from a hug or an appropriate touch.

Having said that, I also recognize that hugs or touching can be seen by some as an unwanted intrusion of their personal space or it can be construed as a sexual advance—one must be careful not to give out hugs where they are unwelcome. Nevertheless, hugging and touching are still important in interpersonal communications and even in business.

Even without giving a hug, people can use their arms to demonstrate warmth and, in so doing, increase their chances of being viewed favorably by others. When approaching a stranger for the first time, try demonstrating warmth by leaving your arms relaxed, perhaps with the palms of your hands clearly visible. This is a very powerful way of sending the message, “Hello, I mean no harm.” It is a great way of putting the other person at ease and facilitating any interaction that follows.

In the Mediterranean, South American, and Arabic cultures, touching is an important component of communication and social harmony. Don’t be shocked, startled, or threatened as you travel if people touch you on the arm (assuming they do so appropriately): It’s their way of saying, “We are OK.” Touch, in most of the world, means trust.

In Latin America, an abrazo (in essence, a brief hug) is part of the culture among males.  It is a way of saying “I like you.” In performing an abrazo, the chests come together and the arms engulf the back of the other person. Unfortunately, I know a lot of people who are reluctant to do this and/or feel very awkward when they do. I have seen American businessmen, even diplomats, in Latin America who will either refuse to give an abrazo or, when they do it, appear as though they’re dancing with their grandmother. My advice is to do it and get it right, since little courtesies mean a lot in any culture. Learning a proper abrazo is no different than learning to shake hands correctly and feeling comfortable doing it. If you are a businessman and will be working in Latin America, you will be perceived as cold or aloof if you fail to learn this familiar greeting. There’s no need for that when a simple gesture can engender so much goodwill.

Our arms can transmit a lot of information about intentions and sentiments. From my perspective, one of the best ways to establish rapport with someone is to touch that person on the arm, somewhere between the elbow and the shoulder. Of course, it is always wise to assess the person’s personal and cultural preferences before you proceed. Generally, however, the brief touch I have just described is usually a good and safe place to initiate human contact and to let others know you are getting along.

We now know what waiters and waitresses have always known: when they touch their patrons they get bigger tips. Studies also suggest that bankers and lending officers may be more willing to loan money when their customers have touched them. 

So when it is safe to do so again, here is a behavior that requires little effort and which could have powerful results.

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