Guide to the Body Language of Touching

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Table of Contents

Welcome to this guide of how to use touch in your communication.

Why do you need a guide for that? Well while you obviously can manage on your own, the body language of touching is not something very straightforward. Touch means different things to different people: Touch the wrong person, the wrong part of the body or in an improper time and your reputation is at risk, or it’s just an invitation for a really awkward moment.

In this 2 parts guide I will do my best to explain the things you need to consider in body language and touching. in context. My aim here is explain the main principles and let you be the judge of how implement it in your life.

In this first part we’ll look at the factors that affect who can touch whom, and what types of touch there are, so you can have a better notion of how to interpret and use it.

What we can communicate through touch?

Touch is a type of communication that based on context. This means that different situations and characters alter the meaning of the touch. A pat on the back can suggest encouragement in one scenario and a signal to get attention in another.

As such – touch is a versatile tool, and we adopt it in many ways in our interactions:

  • We can use it to comfort others (or ourselves)
  • To make a “move”
  • To create a bond
  • To get attention
  • To direct and guide
  • To greet or depart
  • To ask for an advice
  • To “tease” playfully
  • To show ownership

But if we ignore the context or the social codes of the person we touch, we might send an entirely different message from what we intended.

Because of that, touching in body language should be avoided until a certain bond and understanding is established.

What do we need to consider?

If we want the message in our touch to pass through correctly to the other party, we need to understand how they think, and how they might perceive it. Of course we cannot predict how they will react, but we can minimize our mistakes by taking into consideration the factors in play.

The factors that determine the “rules” of touching are quite similar to those that affect Proxemics. It’s not a surprise, since Proxemics and Haptics are very familiar subjects in nonverbal communication.

Let’s review some of these factors and explain them:


Gender plays a big role in determining who’s allowed to touch whom. In general females are more comfortable with touching than males, perhaps due to their maternal role. Males usually prefer a brief touch – because otherwise they might feel that their masculinity is at risk.

Just take a look at the contrast between female and male friends. Girls will usually have much more comfort and freedom to touch each other.

Guys, however, will immediately start to feel very weird if a hug lasts a second longer, and we will automatically suspect that something is wrong.When it comes to the touch between the opposite sexes, it’s a walk on thin ice, there’s always the sexual subtext in the background.

Guys have a tendency to interpret female touch (especially when she’s attractive) as a sexual advance, whether it’s true or not. I think this is because we men are just much less used to touch, so we pick whatever we can get. Male touch often interpreted as powerful, paternal and dominant.

Important note: the differences I mention here are mostly related to western cultures

This common distinction between the role of touch in each gender leads to many social misinterpretations. For example, it leaves women in powerful position in quite a dilemma – if they touch their male employees there’s a chance that this would be interpreted as sexual advance, and not a display of authority and confidence.

Touching between couples is display of ownership, and it’s common for young couples who cling to each other.


Different cultures have different codes when it comes to the amount of touch that is socially acceptable and how it should be done. That’s why it’s important to check the local customs when visiting foreign countries to avoid offending or be offended by the locals.

For example, if you watched “Gran Torino” (a great movie by the way) you know that in many regions of Asia it’s very inappropriate to touch a person’s head, even if it’s a child, because the head is considered to be the sacred resting place for the spirit of that person.

Status and Authority

The act of touching is usually initiated by active side of the interaction and not vice versa. You touch when:

  • You ask a favor
  • Give an order
  • Give directions or information
  • When you have something to share
  • When you want to comfort someone
  • When you’re trying to persuade someoneYou rarely touch when you’re in a passive or weak position.

That’s why dominant and authoritative figures usually initiate touch. Because leadership is about action, not sitting by and waiting.

Also, just like in terms of personal space, touch is related to hierarchy – influential people have more permission to touch others, due to their position or role. For a lower status to touch a higher status is considered as inappropriate, sleazy or bold behavior. For example, it’s OK for the doctor to touch you to check your organs, but it’s not cool for you to touch the doctor.

How to Implement Touching in Body Language?

OK, so we discussed what we can communicate in body language with touching and the factors we need to consider before using it. But how exactly are we gonna implement this in our communication? Do we need to start touching people randomly and hopefully get a positive response?

Also, how to determine if someone is approachable, and what can happen if you slip up – explained from a very personal experience…

Before we actually begin, it’s important for me to emphasize that it’s not in my intention to imply that you should use touch in every occasion possible. Touching others is a sensitive matter, especially since it’s not very straightforward by its meaning… So I would like to ask you to use some common sense and consideration before applying it.

With that out of the way let’s start with:

How to Initiate Touching

Prior to touching someone we need to set up some sort of connection with them.

Even the simplest greeting – the handshake, appears only after an eye contact and usually along with a vocal greeting. Try to do this the other way around and see what happens.

The more intimate the relationship – the more touching is allowed and to the more private parts. It’s only logical because we need to trust and like someone before we give them a “free access” to our more personal zones.

So far – so good, but does it matter who initiates the contact?

Why yes it does!

Like I mentioned in the first part of this guide – touch is something that’s usually initiated by the higher status and active persona. Be it to give a command or to comfort – the person who initiates the contact is the one steering the wheels.

That’s why if it’s important for you to be in control or to appear more active, you should strive to initiate the touch.If you look at politicians, for example, you’ll notice that there’s a certain power struggle when they meet and greet each other – each one will try to appear as the dominant figure by using a pat on the back, a two handed handshake or using his hands to guide his fellow. It’s all for the show obviously.Be careful though, it’s often a bad idea to make the first move with your superiors, because it will be perceived as ambitious and inappropriate. 

Touch is an Amplifier

Strong body language has a lot to do with timing. It’s the use of matching verbal and nonverbal communication in the right time. A strong image is created when all the signals complement each other and send the same message. There is congruency, grace and natural flow to things. That’s why it’s so funny to see super muscular guys with a squeaky voice – it’s just doesn’t add up!

Influential figures know that and they use touch in body language to emphasize their messages. They know how to push the right buttons at the right moments to amplify their message tenfold.So how is it done? Quite simply actually, because when we make contact we amplify the already existing mood, we should strive to do it when the mood is to our favor, or, if we want to emphasize some specific message. E.g. A “no” with a slight push is way stronger than just a verbal “no”.

Another example: Suppose a salesman is sitting with a customer and he wants the customer to trust him to make the sale. Our salesman should initially avoid touching his customer (beyond the initial greetings) until he established some basic connection with him. We don’t want him to appear too “pushy” and aggressive.  If, however, he receives some positive reaction, then he can use a light touch to accent this mood while presenting the benefits of the product – to project the customer’s positive reaction towards the salesman and the product, and therefore increase his chances of sell.

I know, easier said than done, but it’s totally worth spending some time practicing that.

Determine Approachability

When meeting with strangers or people you barely know – it’s always hard to know when it’s “OK” to make contact with them.

To help you determine if someone is “touchable” you need to seek signs of approachability:

  • An open body language.
  • Keeping eye contact.
  • Smiles.
  • Nods.
  • Leans in.

In short, you feel there’s a good chemistry going on.

You can also look at how this person interacts with other people – Does he use touch and accepts it? How does he greet others? Does he use gestures a lot? (People who gesticulate often – will use and accept touch more easily)

On the other hand, a person who keeps his distance, using defensive body language and doesn’t look very friendly – there’s a good chance he won’t accept a stranger’s touch.

Let me tell you a story from my personal experience, before I even heard about nonverbal communication. It was a painful yet very realistic lesson in how to approach strangers, from the negative perspective:

It’s a customary in my country, in casual settings, to greet guys with a handshake and girls with a friendship kiss (a brief kiss on the cheek). So in one occasion I had the misfortune to try and kiss a girl who wasn’t so “approachable”.

I didn’t thought about what I was doing , and didn’t seem to notice that she was in a very bad mood. So, as I approached to greet her, she pushed me away, and with an intense glare and poisonous voice asked me “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??”. It felt as if I just stepped on a cat’s tail.

Needless to say, it was embarrassing, especially since my friends stood by and laughed hysterically, but it taught me the lesson of being more selective and cautious with how I greet strangers.

Other than that, there are many times it’s a bad idea to touch someone – like when approaching from behind – when they feel vulnerable and helpless.  If in doubt simply don’t do it.

Where to Touch?

It’s a hard question, but I will do my best to answer:

In general, your contact should feel casual, neutral and brief if that’s someone you barely know. Remember that by touching someone you invade their personal space for a moment, and if they don’t like it or trust you enough yet – your touch would feel alien and unpleasant for them. So you can apply a brief touch to a neutral part of the body like the hand, elbow or shoulder to “test the waters” and watch how they react.

If you’re worried that this touch won’t leave the strong impression you desire, take it easy. It’s better to leave a slightly less passionate impression that an over enthusiastic one. Remember, touch in body language is like dynamite – you don’t want to push it too hard. Also, even a light and brief touch can do wonders to improve your interaction and leave a memorable impression.  

Other than that, the let cultural code to guide you – if it’s a culture where little to no touch with strangers is the norm – a light touch is more than enough. If it’s a “warmer” culture, feel free to imitate the locals in their customs.

Where not to touch?

The more precise question would be: “where not to touch if not sure?

The more central parts of the body, especially around the genital area, are guarded with most vigilance and therefore are ‘off limits’ to strangers. If the intimacy grows these parts will obviously be more “access free”.

Another part you should generally avoid touching is the head of adults. Even in cultures where it’s not a taboo to touch the head, it’s still considered a condescending gesture.

Why? Because this is a maternal or paternal gesture used mostly on children to comfort them, or to stroke a pet. So even with good intention, you actually treat an adult as a child and therefore reduce his standings in the eyes of others. Unless you’re the parent or a priest – avoid using this gesture on adults.

This goes the same for grasping the neck and “hugging” it, seriously, what says “I own you” more plainly than that?


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