Many people use human touch to help create a relational bond. When sadness or pain comes upon another, a hug may seem in order. A hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back is not uncommon. In sports, well, men are seemingly ALWAYS slapping or patting somebody’s back end. No lawsuits or major complaints on that. Yet.
This issue does raise an important question, captured well in the headline of a recent New York Times story, “Beyond Biden: How Close is Too Close?” Several points made in this article bear repeating here.
Before “touching” on those, note what Uncle Joe said in the video he released earlier this month. Regarding personal space, he said, “Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted, and boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset—and I get it.”
To me, this sounds like an excuse. Have these boundaries really shifted? Or do all of us have certain proclivities toward the way we want or don’t want to be touched? I can almost guarantee those preferences do exist—recognizing that it’s possible to see variances in other cultures.
Here’s what the Times discovered. They cite, for example, the work of American anthropologist Edward Hall. His research from the 1960s was based on field work in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. His conclusions?
People tend to prefer a zone of about 18 inches—“intimate space”–– (as Hall termed it) for close friends and family. Our need for what Hall termed “personal space” is from 18 inches to about 4 feet. Acquaintances and colleagues are expected to honor this. Lastly, “social space” is the appropriate range for strangers or new colleagues and that grows from 4 feet to 12 feet.
As I read that, I leaned back and questioned that social space distance. Seems excessive and unrealistic. I mean, 12 feet???
So how does the brain process spatial safety? The amygdala detects threats. It sends signals when spacial boundaries are crossed. One woman that brain scientists studied had a badly damaged amygdala. Apparently, strangers could approach her within a foot without her feeling uneasy.
I admit that I get quite uncomfortable when someone stands and speaks with me leaving less than a foot of personal space. It’s feels WAY too invasive. I’ve often wondered if there is a power issue going on with people who do this.
Verifying my observation earlier about the healthy power of touch, the Times wrote: “People who develop a hands-on style, who are free with hugs and touches, generally do so because they have learned what a powerful bonding mechanism such nonverbal communication can be.” Recent studies document this.
Psychologists report that even small touches can have dramatic effects on both brain and body. This can include stress reduction and lowering anxiety. Less so with a stranger than with a connected friend or loved one.
Lisa Harper is a long time ministry leader. Sharing about the power of touch, she wrote of Jesus of Nazareth:
“He intentionally used tactile methods—hugging a leper, placing His hands on a crippled woman’s spine—in most of His healing miracles. When the disciples tried to keep little children from interacting with Jesus (like most kids, they probably had sticky hands and dirty knees and, therefore, the disciples thought they were too messy to interact with the Messiah), the Lamb of God beckoned them to pile onto His lap (Mark 10:13–16)."
Jesus offered a true “Master’s touch” that was healing and welcoming.
Perhaps the best determinant of how to guide yourself on this issue is motive. And unless someone clearly understands what yours is, be cautious with touch.
If there’s unwanted touch, remember the power of the phrase, “You’re in my space.” That speaks clearly.
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