I am a tactile person. I used to have a mug that said “I run on hugs”, and it is almost literally true, if you throw in the odd (very odd) food-based nutrient just for luck. Yet we are an oddly atactile society. Almost anti-tactile. We occasionally kiss cheeks – and even that is often an air kiss – but we rarely touch each other in any more substantial way. Yet touch may be the most important of our senses, and it is a crucial part of our relationships with others – and not just with lovers, but with friends.
One of my most enduring memories is of the time a friend – barely more than an acquaintance at the time – innocently asked me how I was doing. He didn’t know that my best friend, Di, had recently died, and I was having a particularly difficult day. Caught in a vulnerable moment, I explained why I was struggling, and he put his hand out and held my arm, in an intensely moving, wordless expression of sympathy. More than words ever could, it shored me up and enabled me to get through that day, and many others like it. It conveyed a warmth, affection and sympathy that was almost overwhelming.
Together with laughter, touch is one of the most fundamentally important things our friends can give us for sheer support and mental health. Di used to make me laugh so much that I literally couldn’t breathe. I would be collapsed somewhere, turning helplessly blue, laughing myself almost into unconsciousness. Having thus reduced me to an incoherent, pale blue mess, she would then invite passers by to view the spectacle. I think it was one of her favourite ways to pass the time.
Together, we were very tactile. Always hugging, tickling, or giving backrubs, we had a strong and supportive friendship that often had no need of words (although, to be honest, there were words, and plenty of them!). We used to say we were joined at the brain , and I believe a large part of that intense symbiosis was grounded in touch.
Why, then, are we so wary of touch as a society? Teachers are discouraged from touching their students, even (or perhaps especially) at the primary level, for fear of “inappropriate touching”. Yet I suspect the risk of reducing our tactility is much higher than the risk of anything untoward taking place. The impact of isolating ourselves physically may be much worse than we realise.
It has long been documented that premature babies have dramatically improved survival rates if they are touched regularly – despite the risk of infection, skin-to-skin contact has a profound impact on every measurable vital sign in a vulnerable newborn. “Kangaroo care”, where babies are worn in pouches on their carers’ bodies, preferably with direct skin contact, has been shown to be phenomenally beneficial.
Why should the benefit of touch stop at babies? Of course, it doesn’t. But perhaps in our effort to distance ourselves from our physical, base, animal instincts, we seem all too eager to pretend that touch is not relevant to our adult, independent, intellectual selves.
Yesterday I visited friends at a workplace I officially left nearly 3 years ago. As I left, I spontaneously hugged some of my friends, and it felt almost ludicrously good. I almost went back to hug the rest of them, but it would have been awkward. How sad, that it should be so difficult to establish touch with this group of people that I have known for so long. Of course, it is harder to change the boundaries on an existing friendship than to set them up with a new one. Nonetheless, the taboo against touching at work is fierce. Yet I really do believe that we deprive ourselves needlessly, and place ourselves in much greater danger than the danger of sexual harassment that we think we are guarding against.
Convinced though I am of the importance of touch, I still don’t know how to break down those barriers, apart from one friend at a time. So this is my challenge to you. Touch someone. Even as I write that, I recognise the risks inherent in encouraging people to touch people they wouldn’t ordinarily touch. It must be appropriate, it must not be unwelcome – we need to ask permission to take our friendships up a tactile notch. So ask permission. Open the subject. Don’t push a ‘no’, but welcome a ‘yes’ – with open arms!