Often I have wondered if the way I touch someone has been physically and emotionally perceived as I intended it. Was the touch received as gentle when I meant it to be firm? Was the touch received as intimate when I meant it to be casual? It’s hard, really, to practice touch.
There are so many different ways to touch someone and be touched. Think of the differences between a romantic embrace and a casual hug. Or the difference between a business handshake and a sympathetic squeeze of the hand during a time of sadness. Or the touch of a health care professional giving an injection or drawing blood. Think about the difference in touch when something is critical or when all is copacetic.
These are, of course, only a smattering of the many ways we are touched, or can touch. Then there is touching or being touched emotionally, but today I speak—mostly—about physical touch.
Touch varies based on the relationship between the participants in the touch transaction.
Last month I wrote about the role of permission-seeking and consent-giving in touch. I’ve been thinking more about this. I’ve been thinking not just about where we touch, or who we touch, or why we touch, but also about how we touch. Perhaps the “why” gets in there a little too, as it can inform how we touch or receive touch.
Several months ago, I saw an acquaintance at a social gathering. This acquaintance greeted me with a warm hug and a friendly kiss on the cheek. The memory of this gesture of affection stayed with me for a long time. The nature of the touch was in keeping with our relationship: two people who had met in person once before, stayed in contact online, and were genuinely pleased to be seeing each other again. Yet the persistence of my joy over this hug baffled me.
Lest you think it was amorous feelings that made me recall the hug so fondly, let me assure you that this just wasn’t so. The recollection had (still has, actually) more the flavor of warm, spiced cider than of strawberries with real whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
Not all pleasant recollections need to be unpacked and analyzed. I didn’t really realize that there was anything to understand about the hug—until I read some commentary on the cultural meaning of handshakes.
I was raised to give and receive firm handshakes. Plenty of grip. As a girl, and later a woman, I often employed more squeeze, to avoid the perception of delicacy. The soft, loose handshakes, the proverbial “limp fish” handshake, made me feel strangely at a loss. I had no cultural context for it. If you’re squeezing my hand and shaking it around, you must have great consideration for me, mustn’t you? (excepting those whose grips were so hard I could hear my bones crack.)
Recently, though, I read a different interpretation. IN this interpretation, the iron grip handshake is seen as overbearing, as an attempt to snatch or hold the other person. The loose grip, with perhaps a gentle squeeze, can be seen as a gesture of recognition and care.
What does all this have to do with hugs?
Here’s what that hug was like: The person gently folded their arms around me, lightly touched the hair lying over my cheek with their lips, and let me go. There was no urgency. It was not a “bear hug”. (Please don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for bear hugs too!) It was more like being held, than being hugged. It was as if the hug said these words to me: “I see you. I will express my happiness in seeing you. Now I will let you go, but you may come see me again.”
There’s no right or wrong way to touch someone, unless they don’t wish to be touched that way, or wish to be touched at all. There’s a lot to be gained though, in considering whether our own intentions are being conveyed by our touch, or whether we’re just following cultural norms.
May you experience—giving or receiving–touch (should you so choose) that is fulfilling and authentic.