The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Touch Cue

Most decide by "the touch," that is, the feel . . . . --Andrew Ure

Touch is infrequent and usually consists of a slight tap on a woman's shoulder. Or he may run his arm around the waist of a woman visitor. Men are never touched by [TV talk-show host, Phil] Donahue. --Walburga von Raffler-Engel (1984:16).

Tactile signal1. Incoming: A sign received through physical contact with a body part (e.g., a hand or lip), causing it to feel (see HOMUNCULUS). 2. Outgoing: A sign of physical contact (e.g., of pressuretemperature, or vibration) delivered to a body part (see, e.g., KISS).

Usage I: Touch cues are powerfully real to human beings. If "seeing is believing," touching is knowing-- i.e., knowing "for sure." Touch cues are used worldwide to showemotion in settings of childcare, comforting, and courtship, and to establish personal rapport.

Usage IISelf-touching is often seen in anxious or tense settings, as a form of self-consolation by means of self-stimulation (see below, Usage IV).

Usage III: "Soft" or protopathic touch--which is found in hairless (or glabrous) areas of our skin--is partly responsible for itching, tickling, and sexual sensations (Diamond et al.1985:4-6). Protopathic touch is ancient, but gives little information about the size, shape, texture, or location of a tactile stimulus.

Usage IV: "Itch" sensations may trigger the spinal cord's rhythmic, oscillating scratch reflex. Scratching stimulates pain receptors (or nociceptors) which drown out (i.e., block) the itchy feeling. Primates often scratch themselves in anxious social settings and when intimidated by dominant rivals.

Usage V: "Tickle" is a tingling sensation, considered both pleasant and unpleasant, which often results in laughter, smiling, and involuntary twitching movements of the head, limbs, and torso. 

Anatomy. The outer covering of skin is our body's largest "part." Skin makes up about 15% of the body's weight (ca. 23 lbs.), and occupies some 21 square feet of surface area (Wallace et al.1983:254). Pain and protopathic touch cues are received via free nerve endings in the skin and hair follicles. More specialized nerve endings have evolved for finer touch and temperature discrimination. Mechanoreceptors (including Pacinian corpusclesMerkel's disks, and Meissner's corpuscles) sense pressure, stretching, and indenting of the skin. Thermoreceptors (Krause end bulbs for cold and organs of Ruffini for heat) are sensitive to changes in temperature.

Culture1. According Edward Hall (1966), "contact cultures" (e.g., France, Latin America, and Saudi Arabia) use a greater frequency of aroma and touch cues than do "noncontact cultures" (e.g., Germany and North America), which use more visual cues. 2. The buttock pat, used in American football as a sign of encouragement, has spread to European sports (Morris 1994:14). 3. In Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, the buttock slap--in which the right buttock pushes out as if or to be slapped with one's own right hand--is given as a sign of insult (Morris 1994:14).

Evolution. The most primitive, specialized tactile-sense organ in vertebrates is the neuromast, a fluid-filled pit in the skin of today's fishes, which picks up vibrations, heat, electrical, and (perhaps) chemical signals in the surrounding water. Each neuromast contains a hair cell, which, when moved by water currents generated by a nearby fish, e.g., stimulates a sensory nerve. Through the neuromast, the current becomes a nonverbal sign of another fish's presence.

Handshake. Grasping another's hand with a power grip is a widespread means of expressing congratulations, contractual agreement, farewell, and greeting. The handshake is European in origin (Morris 1994), although many cultures touch hands and other body parts with the hand(s) to greet family members and fellow tribesmen. These socio-emotional touch cues developed from tactile signs originally used in mammalian grooming and childcare. 1. "We do know that the full Hand Shake occurred as early as the 16th century because in Shakespeare's As You Like It there is the phrase: 'they shook hands and swore brothers'" (Morris 1994:125). 2. In the politician's handshake, two hands reach out to clasp and surround another's hand, like a glove, to intensify the emotions aroused by physical closeness and "friendship." According to Morris (1994:126), the glove handshake is widespread in "diplomatic, political and business circles." 3. A study reported in the July 2000 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women ". . . who introduce themselves with an assertive gesture by way of a firm handshake were perceived as being intellectual and open to new experiences" (Lipsitz 2000:32).

Maternal care. Adult female rats who receive frequent touch cues (e.g., licking, nuzzling, and grooming) as pups show heightened sensitivity to the hormone estrogen, and touch their own offspring more than do rats who were touched infrequently as pups. "This physiological effect of grooming suggests that a change in the female pup's brain governs the animal's own mothering styles," according to research by neuroscientists at McGill University in Montreal (published in the October 23, 2001 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Bower 2001:280).

Primates. "A troop of [at least 100] furious monkeys in India's northeastern state of Assam brought traffic to a standstill after a baby monkey was hit by a car on a busy street. . . . . The angry monkeys kept traffic at bay for more than a half hour as they tried to care for the infant. A local shopkeeper said: 'It was very emotional . . . some of them massaged its [broken] legs'" (Newman 2000:C14).

Space. When Apollo 11's pilot, Michael Collins, flew above the Moon, he felt he could "almost reach out and touch it" (Collins1988:5).

Sports. Many baseball players go through touch rituals before they come to bat. "Nomar Garciaparra, the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, has a routine with his batting gloves [i.e., he compulsively adjusts and re-adjusts them] that would rival the machinations during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace" (Wilkens 1998:E-3). 

RESEARCH REPORTS: In a review of studies of people touching one another, Vrugt and Kerkstra (1984) concluded that a. touching of opposite-sex acquaintances, "even at an early age," is avoided (p. 14); b. young adults, "as when bowling," touch each other more in mixed than in same-sex interactions (p. 14); c. "old" women touch more than "old" men, seemingly due to declining sexual interests (pp. 14-15); d. while greeting and departing, men "behave less intimately toward each other" than women behave toward each other (p. 15 [Author's note: But hugging has become more prevalent among U.S. men since the 1980s.]); and e. women "shrink less from being touched by strangers than men" (p. 15).

E-Commentary: "As you know, I work in the Pentagon. By the grace of God, I am okay. I can only say that I wish there were something more I could do. The FBI has taken over the area and we were not allowed to go in for the bodies. In a window on the impact side of the Pentagon flew an American Flag--my colors. It was tattered and torn, yet had somehow survived the blast. The Site Commander, Lieutenant General Van Elstyn (U.S. Army), ordered that the colors be retired. A Marine, Master Gunnery Sergeant, John A. Northcutt, Jr., called for four Marines. Myself and three others reported quickly, and were ordered to fold the flag and retire the colors properly. We did so, and as I folded the ripped and dirty flag, the enormity of the situation hit me. In my hands I held the enduring symbol of all that remains right in America. The fabric was torn, tattered, and filthy; but it was still firm. We faced, marched toward the General, halted three steps in front of him, and the Master Gunny presented the flag. Lt. Gen. Van Elstyn saluted the colors and thanked us. As we faced and returned to our stations to help in any way possible--I nearly lost my composure. The texture of that flag will never leave my mind--the grit from the debris and the soaked fabric from the hoses. I will carry that with me the rest of my days. I was crying inside, and I didn't want to stop touching it." --Sergeant Bret Balerlein, USMC (Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2001 21:45:56 -0700)

Neuro-notes I. "In primitive brains, subcortical and extrathalamic sensory structures were crucial to sensory processing. Comparable structures continue to be important in the advanced brains of modern mammals, even though the role of the cerebral cortex and thalamus in sensory processing has expanded enormously. For example, the reticular formation in the brainstem is one of the major sensory-motor integration systems in nonmammalian vertebrates. In mammals, it continues to play a role in sensory processing and it contributes to the arousal mechanism, selective attention, and motor control" (Willis 1998C:109).

Neuro-notes II. We find pleasure in a carpet's softness, as it stimulates the poorly localized tactile sensations for soft or protopathic touch, carried by the anterior spinothalamic nerves (whose paleocircuits are phylogenetically older than those for the more precise sensations of pain and temperature, carried by the lateral spinothalamic nerves).

Neuro-notes IIIMirror neurons: The sight of someone being touched activates mirror neurons in the observer's parietal somatic sensory cortex. (Source: Keysers, Christian, and Luciano Fadiga (2008). "The Mirror Neuron System: New Frontiers," in Social Neuroscience, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, pp. 193-98.)

Neuro-notes IVMirror neurons: The sight of someone being touched activates mirror neurons in the observer's parietal somatic sensory cortex. (Source: Keysers, Christian, and Luciano Fadiga (2008). "The Mirror Neuron System: New Frontiers," in Social Neuroscience, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, pp. 193-98.)

Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright by Aaron M. Huffman)