Monday, July 29, 2013

To Touch or Not To Touch - That is the Question

How we greet one another appears to have evolved into a variety and at times bizarre ways of expressing our enthusiasm for seeing a familiar face. A reader wrote to ask about the etiquette of what is or may not be appropriate when we meet others.

Dear Jay:

My question is about appropriate touches between two male friends. I'm not sure if this is the right category for my questions, but I hope you can still help me.

1. I have a close friend who loves women and is a married man. We normally greet each other by fist bump or handshake. Since we are close, sometimes he would greet me by touching me and tickle my chest in a joking way. I think that it is inappropriate for him to touch my chest, but I still think that he is straight.

2. There is another guy at work who would say goodbye sometimes by gently punching a part of your body if there is no opportunity for a handshake or fist bump. Sometimes he would gently punch you in the arm or forearm or your back. Is it all right that he punched me near my right ankle while we were seated? Do you see anything wrong about punching or tapping the thigh part of another man?

3. I had a previous male coworker who would sometimes pinch me in my abdomen. 

I would love to hear your personal opinion, Jay.

Dear Michael,
I have noticed over the past couple of decades that more and more men greet one another more comfortably using fist pumps, hugs, and other friendly touches unheard of a generation or two ago. The formal handshake has been delegated to the boardroom or a formal social gathering. In the old days, a good firm handshake was the true mark of a gentleman; and it was customarily the first physical contact one person had with another. I believe it was the world of sports that introduced us to the fist pump. It was a quick and easy and ever-so-masculine way to acknowledge a good shot or achievement. This was quickly adopted into the business world as a code of coolness. As cool as it may be on the sports field, it doesn’t transfer into the world of business well at all.
Touching other body parts is not a sign of not being straight – it’s simply another manifestation of trying to be cool. Punching people with no intent to harm or hurt is rather Neanderthal and is best reserved for frat houses or sports bars. It has no place in polite society. Why one would touch an ankle is simply bizarre. Touching one’s thigh can be misinterpreted as being a step over the line and is to be avoided.
Pinching another person’s abdomen is also a bit odd and is an unfortunate nervous action most likely.
The other night I was at a smart dinner party. There was a man there who very much wanted to give me a hug, but was concerned about how this action might tarnish his image. He clearly demonstrated throughout the evening, as he became more and more intoxicated, that his image had more to worry about than giving me a hug. I personally do not like to be grabbed by anyone without having progressed through several greeting stages previously, perhaps over a period of time.  This action is one of dominance and puts people off, particularly when alcohol is involved. 

There are some people whom I kiss on the cheek – even some men. This is a custom prevalent in many parts of the world. There are others whom I bow to, and others whom I hug. Most men receive a handshake, as that is what they are most comfortable with.
Assuming one is even aware of his or her actions, one never wants to cross personal boundaries and risk making another person uncomfortable or in the case of a drunken bear hug, in danger. Always err on the side of caution.
There is little one can do about drunks other than to remove oneself from the situation. For chums who have a distorted sense of what is proprietary, a simple “Please don’t do that” should suffice. Most people don’t like being punched in the arm or pinched in the stomach or anywhere else. These forms of physical communication should be left on the sports field.

For me a handshake says a lot about a person. It can indicate confidence, friendliness, dominance, weakness, and many, many other characteristics. In my workshops I spend a lot of time demonstrating, discussing, and reinforcing this very important form of greeting. Therefore,I stick to that unless I have established a closer relationship where a mutual understanding has been established. This has nothing to do with being straight. It has to do with being civil.

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