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[Don’t] Reach Out and [Don’t] Touch Someone


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By Patricia Bruininks

When you think of compassion, what do you see? Two people sitting 6 feet apart from each other? Two people bumping elbows?

Probably not. What I see is one person’s hand touching another’s. Or two people embracing. And yet, in a time when we desperately need and long to experience compassion for one another, these actions are forbidden, and rightfully so. “Alone Together” is already a well-worn phrase that reminds us social distancing works only when we all do it.

Even before COVID-19 reared its ugly invisible head, concern was being expressed about the negative physical effects of loneliness, with outcomes similar to those brought on by chronic smoking, drinking, and being sedentary. An increase in loneliness among Americans is partly due to our dependence on electronic communication and social media, which has contributed to fewer face-to-face interactions and weaker social networks.

Ironically, technology has been a blessing in that it has allowed us to maintain a degree of normality during the pandemic. Many people have been able to continue working, teaching, learning, and worshipping with others while being physically separated. Therapists, who have seen an increase in clientele, have continued their practice by meeting with clients online. Even doctors have been able to meet with some of their patients via online consultations. 

But technology has limits. There’s a reason why we feel exhausted after a day of Zooming. Human interactions involve a great deal of nonverbal behavior that happens below the neck. Without the give and take of body language we have learned to rely on, we are forced to pay more attention to words and sustained eye contact, resulting in Zoom fatigue.

We aren’t wired to communicate at a distance; facial and vocal expressions aren’t enough to truly connect. Another important mode for expressing emotions, not available at a distance, is touch.

To see how important touch is for communicating positive social emotions such as compassion, consider the following study: two participants (who did not know each other) were instructed to sit across from each other at a table, separated by an opaque black curtain. One participant put their arm through the curtain; the other was instructed to communicate a list of emotions by touching the receiver’s arm in a way they felt would communicate each emotion. The receiver could not see what the communicator was doing; they could only feel the emotion via touch. The receiving participants were able to discriminate between the communication of love, gratitude, and sympathy at much-better-than-chance levels simply by how the other person physically touched them.

In addition to communicating specific emotions, healthy touch soothes.  Children receiving vaccines cry less when immediately held by a parent. In addition to getting massages, some adults participate in non-sexual “cuddle parties” and even pay professionals for hugs. We can also self-soothe by touching our face when experiencing stress — something else we are encouraged to avoid during the pandemic. 

Touch also signals safety. In uncertain situations, a child will seek contact with their parents. A slight touch by a teacher on a student’s shoulder can encourage them to speak in class; similarly a doctor’s touch can encourage a patient to share their symptoms. In a moment of vulnerability, touch by a trusted other can ensure we are in a safe place.

Touch increases cooperation. We see this with social grooming in primates as it aids in relationship building, which can later result in cooperation necessary for protection. Touch has a similar effect in humans: in one study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, friendly physical contact between NBA teammates was recorded. Teams with more contact early on in the season were more successful by the season’s end.

All of this is to say that, in a time when we are desperate for human connection, an important and natural mode for that connection has been off limits. Even as government imposed restrictions attenuate, allowing us back into social spaces, we must remain vigilante to keep the virus at bay.

The good news is that the pandemic will not last forever. It will take time, but eventually normal interactions (like the kinds we see in TV shows we’ve been binge-watching) will resume. As with so many other things we’ve been deprived of, we will have a renewed gratitude for what we took for granted. I know I look forward to being able to literally reach out and touch someone.

Join FāVS for a digital Coffee Talk on “The Value of Human Connection,” at 10 a.m., June 6. Elfert is a panelist. Register for link.

Patricia Bruininks
Patricia Bruininks
Patty Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee. She left the South to attend college in Michigan and graduated from Hope College. She pursued her doctoral work in social psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan. Before moving to Spokane, she taught for five years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Now at Whitworth, she teaches courses on the psychology of poverty and consumerism as well as a course on love and forgiveness. She also studies and conducts research on the emotion of hope. Dr. B (as her students call her) is married to Mr. B (Jim); she has two grown sons, two daughters-in-law, one granddaughter, and a rescue dog. Her hobbies include camping, photography, and spinning. She is in her 13th year at Whitworth University as a Professor of Psychology.

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