Oxford University Releases Map of Acceptable (and Taboo) Touch Zones

If you plan to work in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, you’d better get used to being hugged and kissed, and doing the same in return. It’s a touchy-feely business, even among acquaintances, but this sort of tactile familiarity isn’t the norm everywhere.

People are very particular about where they do and don’t like to be touched, and who’s allowed to put a hand on what. Now, Oxford University has released the findings from the largest study ever conducted on physical contact, creating maps that show what parts of men’s and women’s bodies are acceptable for contact to lovers, friends, relatives and strangers.

As explained in an Oct. 26 article in the U.K. Telegraph, the map shows that the hands are the only part of the body that both men and women don’t mind sharing to some degree with everyone, even strangers. Although men are somewhat less protective of their genitals than women — not listing them as taboo with female friends, acquaintances and even strangers — when it gets to male strangers, both men and women list almost the whole body as off-limits, especially the part between the chest and the ankles (men want male strangers to stay away from their heads as well).

Touching also varied by nationality, with Italians surprisingly being more hands-off than Russians, while Finns are pretty relaxed about the whole thing.

But especially in the age of email, text, and Tinder, the value of physical contact shouldn’t be underestimated.

Said evolutionary professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, to The Telegraph:

Even in an era of mobile communications and social media, touch is still important for establishing and maintaining bonds between people. We know that if people don’t see each other, the quality of that relationship diminishes, and your best friend will bump down to just an acquaintance.

Social media does allow you to slow that decline, but it doesn’t stop a relationship failing. You really need to see the whites of their eyes.

So, should you hug or kiss people on first acquaintance? Probably not, but a handshake (or, for the germ-phobic, a fist bump) is almost always acceptable.

Says the Website of “Manners Mentor” Maralee McKee:

We probably don’t shake hands as often as we should. That’s unfortunate, because as the socially chosen form of personal contact between persons who aren’t intimate with one another, every missed handshake is a missed opportunity to connect with that person.

“Consider your handshake your personal olive branch. Be eager to extend your hand to welcome strangers, friends, acquaintances and business associates.

Of course, a limp, lifeless, barely-the-fingertips handshake can do more harm than good.

Writer Tom Chiarella offers advice on how to do this correctly in a May, 2013, piece for Esquire:

On the street, in the lobby, square your shoulders to people you meet. Make a handshake matter — eye contact, good grip, elbow erring toward a right angle. Do not pump the hand, unless the other person is insistent on just that. Then pump the hell out of their hand. Smile. If you can’t smile, you can’t be gracious. You aren’t some dopey English butler. You are you.

As for hugs, McKee warns:

Some people are huggers. I’m one of them. So, I make it a point to constrain myself.

We just can’t read the mind of the person we’re meeting or greeting. They might seem really open to us, but yet might be put off by a hug. It’s best not to place others in the awkward position of wanting to back away from us.

Kissing is increasing in popularity — especially the double-cheek actual-smack and near-miss air kiss — but is not to be deployed indiscriminately, especially among your elders.

Quoted in The Telegraph, etiquette experts Debrett’s cautions:

Older people may not want to be kissed at all, and even if they do not mind, they often only expect one kiss. Some men now kiss socially, but kissing is rare amongst the older generation and within more traditional professions or in very rural areas.

An air kiss, with no contact at all, may seem rude or impersonal, but at least it is not intrusive. A very slight contact is best, and no sound effects are needed.

Touch can even be ennobling. One woman who was never afraid to extend her hand to anyone was Mother Teresa, who advised:

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received.