Once you’ve formed a relationship with someone and they are elevated into a close friendship category, the arms, head, shoulders and upper back open up as safe areas–that can include hugs. It’s interesting to note that the pattern of areas which are safe with friends, is similar to that with mothers–slightly less so for fathers.
Safe Areas of Touch: Visual Map
While the study gives us fantastic insight into the safe areas of touch, we have to remember that this is a generalised view–an amalgamation of reports of preference from participants around the world. There are people with preferences that fall outside of this norm. We need to remember that some people are not comfortable with touch and close proximity, even when they are considered to be a close friend. We should respect their feelings in our quest to provide them comfort.
We should also note that there are cultural differences too. What’s the norm in one culture may not be in another. I’m not an expert in cultural body language. My knowledge lies in the universal language of the body, that is, the innate nonverbal signals and responses that are within everybody, regardless of culture. Oxytocin release is the universal element of what we are discussing here, not the type of touch or gestural greeting which differs across cultures.
Thanks to this study, we have generalised knowledge that the hands are safe areas to touch and other regions may cause discomfort. We also know that touch promotes oxytocin release in the body. We can leverage from this knowledge by facilitating oxytocin release, via some means of appropriate touch. Appropriate in terms of safe areas and cultural norms.
The main point is if you have an opportunity to touch the person that you interact with, without making them feel discomfort from awkwardness or inappropriate touch, then go for it. Most likely, this will increase oxytocin levels within both of you, helping to foster a more positive interaction and therefore, a more positive relationship going forward.
Oxytocin and Dopamine
“Oxytocin causes the release of another neurotransmitter–dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure, reward and motion–it’s another feel-good hormone. “
Remember oxytocin is associated with care, connection and empathy and can potentially promote generous, caring and trusting behaviours.
So when you create these feelings and behaviours in the people you interact with, potential clients, partner, etc., via touch and the facilitation of oxytocin release, dopamine then kicks in– associating you with pleasure. After experiencing this once, the next time they meet you the association happens quicker, and a more positive interaction and relationship can develop.
Self Soothing Behaviours
We’ve talked about touching other people but what about self-touch?
“We release oxytocin within our body when we touch ourselves. That’s why self-touching increases during times of stress and discomfort. Our brain perceives a threat, and our body responds with an attempt to bring feelings of comfort.”
Self-touch increases, usually seen as face-touching, arm rubbing, neck touching, thigh rubbing, finger or nail-biting–an almost endless list of self-soothing behaviours. Even movements with the tongue on the lips, or within the mouth, act to facilitate the release of oxytocin. The oxytocin brings comfort with its soothing, calming effect. This process occurs on a subconscious level, the majority of people aren’t even aware of their self-touch.
This is a fantastic mechanism. However, self-touch is perceived negatively by the people that you interact with-whether picked up consciously or subconsciously. It’s best to actively work on avoiding it if you want to create feelings of comfort with the people that you interact with–that’s if you want to get the most out of your interactions.
Its perceived negatively primarily because of its association with nervousness and anxiety. When we outwardly show stress and anxiety, via nonverbal behaviours, we signal to others that something isn’t right. While this is good in some respects, for example indicating to others that we may need help, it isn’t good when we see it in the people we believe to be our leaders.
Many people in leadership positions may be concealing their feelings via the words that they speak. However, their nonverbal signals outwardly indicate how they really feel. This can have a dramatic effect on their ‘followers’ who take on those feelings of fear and anxiety. The verbal messages that everything is okay, and it’s business as usual, lose their meaning.
Another reason these self-soothing behaviours, and other stress indicators, leave a negative emotion in others, is due to mirror neurons.
“Without our awareness, our mirror neurons fire, and we mimic the expressions, body language and vocal quality of the people we interact with. As this happens, we start to feel their emotion. This is the basis of empathy. Their stress behaviours rub off on us, and we’re left with feelings of discomfort.”
I ask most people that I work with to self-audit themselves to work out what their personal self-
soothing behaviours are. We all have one or two that we display regularly. Often these have turned into habits and are present, even when stress isn’t. Most of the people I work with have no idea that they do their particular behaviours and are surprised at the revelation that they display these to their colleagues and clients, often.
Your first step in reducing these behaviours is awareness. Become aware of other people’s behaviours and your own. Once you see these behaviours in yourself, stop them in real time each time you find yourself doing them. You’ll have to do this over and over again before you can quit the habit.
RECAP: Oxytocin, Touch and Building Connection
Oxytocin is good for you and the people you interact with.
It can be released through touch.
It’s associated with care, connection and empathy.
Touch interaction with pets and animals can also trigger oxytocin release.
Incorporate appropriate touch into your interactions to promote generosity, caring and trusting.
Work on avoiding self-touch in public to avoid leaving others with a negative experience.
Sophie Halliday Zadeh is a body language specialist from My Alcomy, transforming lives through nonverbal communication science.