What meaning does physical touch have for us? After enjoying coffee with a friend the other morning, we found ourselves at our cars, parked right next to each other, ready to bring our time together to a close. This girl seems particularly keen on the half-open ‘side-hug’. Personally, I am not very accustomed to this side-hug, though I have experienced it most commonly, I suppose, with the wives of some of my married friends. Still, as I was driving away, I began thinking about the layers and hierarchies of different kinds of physical touch that we use in our culture to communicate various things to one another.
I thought of my time living for six months in Hungary a few years ago. There, as with many other European cultures, one greets and bids farewell to one another with two, or sometimes three, kisses on the cheeks, alternating with each kiss. This is the common and cultural greeting for first-time introductions, greeting one’s mother, father, siblings, close friends, or strangers that you are being introduced to. Sex, or gender, is here irrelevant. Occasionally, the handshake would be used between myself and an older professor, for example, with whom there was not much familiarity, a relationship connection we did not intend to see again. But the cheek kisses were almost entirely consistent and present. One had not said “hello” or “goodbye” without this.
Here in the United States we use the handshake for formal greetings and farewells. If the relationship grows in intimacy, vulnerability, trust, deeper friendship, or romantic committment, or is biologically familial, then the handshake graduates to and becomes the hug. The kiss is usually reserved for romantic relationships, spouses, or parent-child (grandparent-child) relationships. I wouldn’t think of kissing my closest male friends on the cheeks as I said goodnight to them after a time of good conversation at the pub. But why not? I wouldn’t think of kissing everyone’s cheeks after a dinner party where both men and women are present as I say goodnight. Why not?
One thinks of the common cultural practice in Middle-Eastern countries for men to hold hands as they walk around in public. This may be more common in other countries and cultures as well, of which I am not aware.
It seems obvious that we have cultural physical communication gestures that are accepted, indirectly taught, and implicitly encouraged (or discouraged) from our childhoods. Must we stay informed and shaped by them? What about the person who was raised in multiple cultures, all with different physical communication styles? Some people are not as comfortable with physical touch to begin with, due to a number of factors in their personal histories. Some people are excessively ‘touchy’ and do not practice healthy boundaries.
Whatever one’s personal experience or understanding of physical touch, we cannot get away from the truth that physical touch has meaning and power. We are physical bodies, creatures of matter. We are sensual creatures endowed with many ‘windows’ through which to receive information and experience reality. There are layers of meaning going on during any given conversation. 60-90% of communication is non-verbal. We place a lot more importance, intention, and cognitive awareness energy into our verbal content and ‘the message’ we want to communicate with our words. This is not a bad thing. This too is very important. But what if we were intentional not only with our words spoken and our silence given? What would it look like to communicate with our whole selves? What if we embraced the reality that we are always communicating, subconsciously and consciously, with the world, with each other, with ourselves, with God? Here, I believe the unseen and the seen aspects of reality converge in a beautiful way. This can be difficult for those who were taught that matter and physicality, including one’s own body, is stained, worthless, broken, and a burden that one must carry through life, dragging the weight of our sinful bodies behind us as we press forward with our perfected, cleansed, souls into a disembodies eternal heaven. This is, of course, heavily influenced from Plato. Some of us may still have this understanding of our bodies, and the material world, operating subconsciously without much of our awareness. Only the ‘word’ of our speech and content is important and valuable. It, alone, is eternal, lasting, and meaningful, it is believed. I am not saying all of this is not true, but reality is much more than this. It is not less than this, but more.