To Hug or Not to Hug- Touch in Different Cultures

A pat on the shoulder, a touch on the back of the palm, a hug from a friend- these are all different ways we touch each other on daily basis, some of which we do unnoticed. A human being needs touch. And we need a sense of belonging through touch.

Did you know that touch is our first way to show compassion for both themselves and others? Have you noticed you hug your friends in a moment of both grief and joy, but you are trying to comfort yourself as well by touching your face and placing your hands on your heart?

Studies have shown that touch lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. So no wonder we are craving for touch! While research has proven the significant power of a touch, it’s important to keep in mind when and who you touch, as different cultures react to touch in different ways.

Finns are known to take personal distance for granted (as evidenced by the numerous pictures of bus stops where people keep a two-meter distance between each other), and we most definitely do not jump into the arms of a new acquaintance at the first meeting. In France and Italy, on the other hand, cheek kisses are always exchanged when you meet, and also in Mexico, cheek kisses are customary after a short acquaintance.

In Asia, however, showing intimacy or pointing a finger can be offensive. Moreover, when you are traveling in India, you should restrain from a handshake, and instead, show respect by putting your hands together saying ''namaste.''

Research about touch in different cultures

One of the most famous studies related to touch and different cultures is Sidney Jourard’s café experiment in the 1960s. This research studied how many times in different cultures friends touch each other while chatting in a cafe. In England, friends didn’t touch each other at all whereas, in the US, friends touched each other twice when they were excited, and in France, the number rose to 110. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, friends touched each other up to 180 times!

Two people touching hands, how to develop cultural intelligence?
Especially in Western cultures, we touch only persons you are close to us.

So don’t be surprised when in southern Europe, and especially in Latin America, it feels like people are on your skin, as they touch you several times subconsciously!

I have noticed the same in Mexico and the number of touches became a bit of a shock when I went there for the first time. When you wake up you greet your family by giving one a cheek kiss or a hug. When you go shopping, you say goodbye to each family member by giving a hug or a cheek kiss. And of course, when you say goodnight, you give a hug and a kiss on the cheek. On top of these touches was all the other inconspicuous touch and this Finnish girl was a bit overwhelmed.

Touch in social context

In countries with a high level of social contact, it is therefore common for a farewell to last at least half an hour, and sometimes when you are just about to leave, the conversation continues and you will do the goodbye kisses again. Now, however, I even miss that touch, warmth, and feel!

In many countries, touch is strongly related to social relations. In general, in high-contact countries, such as Latin America, people also speak louder, stand close together, and have more eye contact with the other person (just imagine a stereotypical telenovela fight). If in Asia you accidentally touch a person’s head, your gesture may be disrespectful and in Japan, for example, you greet the guest by bowing, hence there is no touch at all.

In the Middle East, if you try to shake hands at the beginning of a meeting, you may be perceived as rude, as in their culture, a hand is regarded as unhygienic. For the same reason in India, you may find that a person uses only one hand to eat.

In Finland, on the other hand, touch and, for example, hugging, are more acceptable when you have met the other person more than once and you have created a relationship with them. You’ll probably feel more comfortable in a cramped space with your friend than with a guest in the elevator? On the other hand, if you meet a friend’s friend, the handshake may feel a little formal.

In some countries, touch is also related to status; in the U.S., for example, your supervisor may find it disrespectful if you pat him on the shoulder, but when your supervisor pats you on the shoulder, that’s more acceptable.

Developing your cultural intelligence by understanding touch
How do you react to hug from a stranger? Photocredit to lovely Anita Löfberg!

I have made a conscious decision to hug every new acquaintance if I know that he or she comes from a culture where it is acceptable (and these strange times are not an obstacle). Even in these situations, it is worth using cultural intelligence (check more here) and read a person’s body language and cues.

If you find yourself drifting into a situation where you don’t know whether to hug or shake hands, try to show interest in another person with your facial expressions and gestures. It is plausible a person who comes from a culture of high social contact will take the initiative to hug, so don’t be afraid if you suddenly find yourself getting three cheek kisses!

Comment below your experiences with touch in different cultures!

Dacher Keltner.2010. Hands On Research: The Science of Touch.