Are we Afraid of Human Touch?

The concept of personal space varies from one culture to the next

“Não fique triste*,” the taxi driver tells me as he places a friendly hand on my shoulder by way of goodbye.

It’s 5:00AM and I’m flying to Paris after spending a week in Lisbon, the place that is holding me together and helping me navigate an increasingly complex reality.

My stepmom has Stage IV cancer and she and my father live in Paris. Dad is her sole carer and needs support so I’m moving back to Europe until the end of 2019. At the same time, I’m still trying to rebuild my own life after losing five years of it to major depressive disorder. Some days are better than others, and I generally breathe easier in Portugal than I do anywhere else.

All this is weighing on my mind as we drive toward the airport, chatting about the reliability of professional taxis over app-based car services and merrily putting the world to rights at this ungodly hour.

After being up all night, I’m not doing a good job of being my usual sunny self. Leaving Portugal means reliving that final flight out of the Azores and is always traumatic, a struggle every time. Of course I don’t breathe a word of this to my interlocutor but it’s clear I’m a little distraught.

My eyes have that particular saudade already expressing longing for a place I haven’t left yet, as a plane selfie I do not share with anyone will later confirm. I’m also clutching a small box of travel tissues that won’t fit in my backpack.

The taxi driver’s kind words and his gentle touch acknowledge the distress within.

And I’m grateful for them and moved by such spontaneous, heartfelt kindness which makes leaving that little harder, alas.

As one of the five senses, touch is an intrinsic part of human interaction.

And yet, using it has become a perilous pursuit, especially in the US where the concept of personal space is very different from how we define it in Europe.

When I ran educational tours for North American students, their discomfort at being in such close proximity with other humans often showed. This was magnified when they weren’t familiar with city life. On the packed London underground, their body language was frequently defensive if not downright scared.

On one occasion, I had a student who even got sick during the airport transfer to the hotel because she was terrified our tour bus would get in a wreck.

No amount of reassurance about the professionalism of our driver helped. “It’s not that, the roads are so narrow and all the vehicles are so close together, how can you possibly not have an accident?” she said.

This helped me see my reality through fresh eyes.

Being on top of one another is the most natural thing to us Europeans so we don’t tend to question it. At least not until someone’s ginormous backpack collides with our face on the Tube or the Métro. And when it does, you can be absolutely sure its owner is a visitor rather than a local. More than likely, they come from a place with wide, open spaces like North America.

What’s more, many European cultures are quite tactile. The French and the Portuguese kiss a lot. And not all kisses are created equal. Sometimes a kiss is more about rubbing cheeks with another human and making kissing noises than actually planting one’s lips anywhere. Other times, you end up wearing the kisser’s lipstick or scratching your cheek because a mustache or a beard has just grazed it. A kiss (or two, or three, or four) is a perfectly acceptable way to greet relatives, friends, and even acquaintances. The Brits, meanwhile, favor hugs.

Being a cultural mix of all the above, I use both forms of greetings and am also an enthusiastic handshaker with people I’ve just met. Unless I’m in Portugal, in which case a first meeting with friends of friends, or with friends’ relatives invariably starts with a “beijinho”, i.e. a kiss.

Touch is an important part of how many Europeans communicate.

Although I’m no exception, I’m more guarded than most.

Because of my past, touch remains a double-edged sword, something I welcome but also something I fear.

Humans with a history of abuse will often flinch or recoil when a hand approaches them.

Growing up with a mother who used to beat me up frequently, my subconscious mind will still process touch as danger in certain cases. If I’m stressed or in an environment where I do not feel safe, even a benevolent hand on my forearm will cause me to flinch.

And if I’m with someone who has ever hurt me in any way, I recoil automatically or freeze during a hug, no matter how hard I try and override my subconscious. To this day, greeting my mother remains uncomfortable and whenever she places her hand on my arm to draw my attention to something, I jump out of my skin.

Meanwhile, I have no such problem with my father as we often end up in the ridiculous situation of cheek kisses that go on forever. This is partly a family prank and we only stop when we’re laughing too hard to continue. With my stepmom, it’s kisses and huge bear hugs.

As a French-American fluent in Portuguese and at home with local culture, I had no problem interpreting the taxi driver’s gesture. But if I had just landed in Lisbon for the first time and had never been to Europe before, would I have thought the driver was handsy?

Culture, context, and the ability to decode intention are key otherwise communication fails.

Why are human kindness and compassion so frequently misconstrued in America?

And why are people across the gender spectrum so quick to take offense?

Be it online or in meatspace, being defensive seems to be the only way many know how to approach human interaction because they’re unable to parse feedback or criticism.

How much of this is down to individualism? When being socialized to put oneself first turns into the inability to consider others, personal space becomes a fortress. To enter it, one has to seek permission, which puts the kibosh on spontaneity.

For those of us who come from a tactile culture, we can end up being very guarded, awkward, and incredibly self-conscious as a result.

And yet, not every male hand on a female body is sexual harassment; not every female hand on a male body implies she’s ready to have sex with the body in question.

In some instances, language either fails or doesn’t quite reach and only non-verbal communication will do.

And sometimes, touch is simply how compassion expresses itself.

[*Don’t be sad!]

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

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