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The Lost Art Of Touch

Oxytocin is good stuff. You can't buy it in the shops though. Oxytocin is a hormone/neurotransmitter which is released inside the body when we feel safe, wanted and loved. It's often been referred to then as the "love hormone". Put simply, it promotes bonding. A twenty-second-long hug is practically guaranteed to get this stuff moving in our veins but there are many other triggers too.

Did you know that the word "darling" is derived from the word "dear-ling"? When something is dear to us, it is cherished. The addition of the suffix "-ling" implies "young". The implication is that your dearness to me is still young. It can grow. Intuitively, I always got that. It feels both respectful of our new meeting and inviting for our future.

I may be in a minority on this but when someone I have never met before calls me "darling" I melt a little bit inside. I know that many people find that same action offensive and intrusive. Which is interesting...

For me, the non-creepy and completely innocent use of the word "darling" in daily discourse is the verbal equivalent of a touch. There may be a barrier between the person I am interacting with and myself but that word can reach across that counter and place a kind hand on my hand, just for a brief moment. I am seen. I am included. Possibly, I am in some way... cherished.

Of course, it could be used in a creepy way too, especially in a male-to-female dynamic. However, I have fond memories of my early days in London where men frequently called female strangers darling with nothing but respect. I can still hear the cockney market traders with their broad smiles ...

"Good mornin' my darling! What can I get for you today?"

When it's from the right person in the right culture it's filled with sweetness. Community is the word which comes to mind. We are here. Together.

Handshakes are a very important element of bonding with someone you're meeting. There are various theories on the origins of handshakes. One suggests that an "open" hand shows that no weapon is carried or intended. Beyond this though, a handshake is a socially sanctioned opportunity to actually "touch" the other person. I pay attention when I shake someone's hand. I don't make "judgements". A strong handshake, a weak handshake, a sweaty palm may tell me a lot about this person but I value the handshake for an entirely different reason. I am saying "hello", and to me, that matters. I am saying "I see you". I try to communicate that in my handshakes and make eye contact too. Long live the handshake. It may be the single most important gesture we have in remaining connected to each other at a deeper level. Somehow, it signifies that have truly met and not just walked on by.

In the course of my lifetime, we in the UK have become much better at the art of touch. My generation (70's born) made a conscious effort to reintroduce touch into our non-intimate relationships. We embraced the embrace. My friendships remain strong to this day, in part, I am certain because we show our affection physically. It's powerful. I cherish every moment of my hugs with my loved ones.

Social etiquette has always been an incredibly complex matter. Our Victorian ancestors literally needed to be schooled in it. Somewhere along the line though, in the last twenty years or so, our culture has become increasingly suspicious of touch. It's not surprising, nor wholly irrational. The very welcome rise in the number of people speaking out about inappropriate or abusive physical intrusion by others has made us all much more wary about who we touch and in what way.

It's saddening though because touching others is so fundamental to our being. Touching is natural.

The inspiration for this post though came for me three years ago when my wife and I visited Barbados. I first noticed it when I was speaking to the night guard who patrolled our hotel grounds, a lovely sweet man called Joseph. On our first meeting we received a genuine welcome, a big smile, and a warm handshake. By day three, Joseph would crack a joke and lay his hand on my shoulder as we laughed together. If he wanted to show us something, his arm would go behind my back and he'd lead us on to the sight... maybe a nest of turtles or some other wonder of that coast. He did exactly the same with my wife and it was never creepy in the slightest. We had big generous hugs by the time we left. Notice... I still remember his name. That's a genuine connection, right there.

We took a catamaran trip out for the day. The guys who ran the trips were amazing. How they kept their genuine enthusiasm up day in and day out was admirable in itself. I guess it's not a bad life in paradise! But, again, I noticed how incredibly relaxed they were about touch. On numerous occasions during the day, we got quick hugs and a hand on the shoulder as we were asked how we were doing. I had a bit of an epiphany. We got on that boat a little bit uptight. We got off it as an army of friends. I shouldn't omit the fact that there was rum involved too but we had been brought into a different world that day. This unusual level of relaxed physical contact continued in many interactions with the people of Barbados throughout the rest of our trip.

The cynical mind might suggest that the touchy-feely treatment we received in Barbados in various different places was a ploy...a marketing NLP "anchoring" trick to promote repeat tourism. My sense was that it was none of those things. It was just the way Bajan culture is. They are touchy-feely.

No doubt, it would be rose-tinted to suggest that other cultures exist in a state of purity where no suspicion of motivation is necessary but suspicion is the enemy of trust. We have to ask ourselves. Can we extend trust to some...or is everyone a threat? My guess is that some cultures just refuse to grow cynical.

When I got home to England I became suddenly aware of an awkwardness I'd never really noticed before and I got to thinking about this post. Yes, I know. It took a while!

Overwhelmingly the feeling is that while personal space, and should be respected, I'd like to think that we Brits might just like to loosen up a bit, given the opportunity. I get that some people don't like to be hugged, or touched. That's fine. There are body language/voice signals which can be used to tell others that's your position but I fear that in an age of "inappropriateness" we may just have allowed our Victorian genes to disallow one of the most powerful displays of empathy we have available to us; that of touch. I fear that if we do not use it, we will lose it.

Personally, I'm going to risk it. There may be creepy weirdos around who want to touch people in the wrong places for the wrong reasons but should we let their wrongs become our loss?

How we perceive the world around us comes through many filters. An absence of touch from others will leave us feeling separate and isolated. We may go about our daily business as usual, and we'll get by but we may be missing out on those opportunities to connect more deeply with one another.

I want to still be called "darling" by strangers. I want to use first-name terms. I want to reach out and place my hand on someone's arm in comfort. I want to hug a stranger if they find themselves afraid or lonely. I want them to do the same for me without fear that I'll be offended or accuse them of inappropriateness.

And most importantly, I want to hold those I love tight in my arms for the full twenty seconds... and get that oxytocin flowing. These gestures hold us together, bond us, make it real. Let us not drift apart so far that we can no longer see one another.

Navigating this complex territory will never be easy for us. Clearly, we do not want to make others feel awkward or vulnerable. Nor do we want to contravene the cultural rules and cause embarrassment. I guess every interaction must be assessed on its own merits but I, for one, want to remember the lost art of touch!

John Crawford

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