Touching is a powerful, subtle and complex form of communication. In social situations, the language of touch can be used to convey a surprising variety of messages. Different touches can be used to express agreement, affection, affiliation or attraction; to offer support; to emphasise a point; to call for attention or participation; to guide and direct;
to greet; to congratulate; to establish or reinforce power-relations and to negotiate levels of intimacy.
Even the most fleeting touch can have a dramatic influence on our perceptions and relationships. Experiments have shown that even a light, brief touch on the arm during a brief social encounter between strangers has both immediate and lasting positive effects. Polite requests for help or directions, for example, produced much more positive results when accompanied by a light touch on the arm.
When flirting, it is therefore important to remember that the language of touch, if used correctly, can help to advance the relationship, but that inappropriate use of this powerful tool could ruin your chances forever.
Although there are considerable differences between cultures in the levels of touching that are socially acceptable, and different personalities welcome different levels of touching, we can provide a few basic rules-of-thumb for first encounters with strangers of the opposite sex.
The first rule, for both sexes, is: touch, but be careful. Women are much less comfortable about being touched by an opposite-sex stranger than men, so men should take care to avoid any touches which may seem threatening or over-familiar. Men are inclined to interpret women's friendly gestures as sexual invitations, so women should be equally careful to avoid giving misleading signals with over-familiar touches.
This does not mean 'don't touch', as appropriate touching will have positive benefits, but touching should initially be restricted to universally acceptable areas and levels. As a general rule, the arm is the safest place to touch an opposite-sex stranger. (Back pats are equally non-sexual, but are often perceived as patronising or overbearing.) A brief, light
touch on the arm, to draw attention, express support or emphasise a point, is likely to be acceptable and to enhance your companion's positive feelings towards you.
If even this most innocuous of touches produces a negative reaction - such as pulling the arm away, increasing distance, frowning, turning away or other expressions of displeasure or anxiety - you might as well give up now. Unless your companion is exceptionally shy and reserved, negative reactions to a simple arm-touch probably indicate dislike or distrust.
If your companion finds you likeable or attractive, a brief arm-touch should prompt some reciprocal increase in intimacy. This may not be as obvious as a return of your arm-touch, but watch for other positive body-language signals, such as increased eye-contact, moving closer to you, more open posture or postural echo, more smiling, etc. Your arm-touch may even prompt an increase in verbal intimacy, so listen for any disclosure of personal information, or more personal questions.
If you see or hear signs of a positive reaction to your arm-touch, you can, after a reasonable interval, try another arm-touch, this time slightly less fleeting. If this results in a further escalation of verbal or non-verbal intimacy from your companion, you might consider moving to the next stage: a hand-touch.
Remember that a hand-touch, unless it is the conventional handshake of greeting or parting, is much more personal than an arm-touch. By touching your companion's hand, you are opening negotiations towards a higher degree of intimacy, so keep it light and brief: a question, not an order.
A negative reaction to your hand-touch, such as the non-verbal signals of displeasure or anxiety mentioned above, does not necessarily mean that your companion dislikes you, but it is a clear indication that your attempt to advance to the next level of intimacy is either premature or unwelcome. A very positive reaction, involving a significant increase in verbal or non-verbal intimacy, can be taken as permission to try another hand-touch at an appropriate moment.
Highly positive reactions to a second hand-touch - such as a definite and unambiguous attempt to move closer to you, reciprocal arm- and hand-touching, along with significantly more personal questions, more disclosure of personal information and more expression of emotion - can be taken as permission to proceed, with caution, to a higher level of intimacy. The next stages might involve a hand-squeeze or hand-hold, repeated twice before moving on to an arm over the shoulders, or perhaps a brief knee-touch. (Males should note, however, that positive reactions to any of these touches can not be taken as permission to grope.)
You will have noticed that we advise performing each touch two times before progressing to the next level. This is because repeating the same touch, perhaps with a slightly longer duration, allows you to check that reactions are still positive, that you were not mistaken in your judgement that the touch was acceptable. The repetition also tells your companion that the first touch was not accidental or unconscious, that you are consciously negotiating for an increase in intimacy. Repeating the same touch before moving to the next level is a non-verbal way of saying "Are you sure?".
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