Last week I chatted with my neighbor’s sister. She was in the middle of cleaning her sister’s apartment and babysitting her nieces. While we were talking her three year old niece kept trying to find ways to get attention. Soon she was tugging on my shirt.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to my arm.
“What’s what?” I replied.
“Those brown spots on your arm,” she said, poking my arm.
“Those are my freckles. I have lots of them.” I explained.
She was fascinated. She kept pointing to different freckles on my arm and then ones on my nose. “Is that a freckle?” she would ask when pointing to a new one. This is how she learned about freckles. By touching a freckle and asking if it was a freckle.
Children learn by touching. But as soon as they start school the “keep your hands and feet to yourself” policy is instated. This is the policy of American society. Don’t touch, ever. America is not an affectionate society. We only touch the ones we know. Sometimes we rarely touch the ones we love.
This “no touching” way of life is taught and reinforced throughout a child’s life. They hear it in elementary school to stop rough playing. They hear it in middle school to stop public displays of affection. They hear it in high school from adults who believe any touching is a gateway to teenage sexual activities.
As soon as a child is old enough to know not to touch, they are punished for touching. It does not matter how or why they were touching. They were told not to touch others. After a certain age we are expected to not be affectionate with others. We are expected to not hug or kiss anybody without their permission. We are also reprimanded for hugging or kissing with their permission.
This punishing of a natural behavior tends to isolate and shame children, teenagers, and adults. This doubt of when to touch, how to touch, and can I touch leads to socially awkward moments. Do I shake their hand? He introduced me to his mother. Should I hug her or just smile and give a short wave of recognition? I need to get their attention. Do I tap them on their shoulder? Do I just stand close enough and say ‘hey’ to get their attention? Am I standing too close? Will they think I am creepy?
Then there are interactions with the “touchy, feely” people of society. The ones who were never punished for touching or they were the rule breakers. Are they going to hug me? Do they think I am the hugging type? Am I the hugging type? How long should this hug last? Does this hug mean anything to them? Should I half hug them or is this a full hug moment? I don’t know how committed I am to this hugging thing. Yup, it is definately a bear hug. I guess I will just wait until they put me back down.
This “no touching” policy becomes a problem while dating and having friends of the opposite sex. A social setting filled with non-touchers, tempted touchers, and the touchy feely touchers. All sending crossed signals and mixed messages. A hug is no big deal to one while it is a “sign he/she likes you” for another. A kiss on the cheek is a fleeting moment for one while it is a new crush for another. A make out session is fun for one while it is lust for another. A friends with benefits arrangement is casual for one while it is serious relationship potential for another.
This confusion is not only awkward for those who don’t know when to touch. It is confusing for those who don’t know when not to touch. A hug from a guy you like is exciting. A hug from a guy you don’t like is creepy. A kiss from a girl you like is exciting. A kiss from a girl you don’t like is crazy. Those who don’t know when not to touch are humiliated and shamed.
Most people fall into the tempted touchers group. They want to touch and be affectionate. But they don’t want the scorn of being called creepy or crazy. They want to feel connected to others without the threat of humiliation and shame. They want to hug, kiss, and flirt. They want to be playful. They want to touch and be touched. Instead they keep their hands and feet to themselves.