To Touch or Not to Touch That is the Question

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I’m a hugger and a toucher. It goes way back to my Danish/Swedish heritage. In our family we called them “love pats.” As a child, I’d try to dodge those slap-on-the-back taps whenever possible; some could even sting.

Now I’m doing the same thing: thumping my spouse and my friends on the back followed by a big squeeze of adoration. It’s like a bear hug with suffocating pressure. I tell myself to taper back, but when emotion swells my chest, I get carried away.

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How we approach others tells them a lot about us. Sometimes my exuberance puts people off. My welcoming embrace can be overpowering. My enthusiasm may offend the non-touchers and the formal greeters from other countries and cultures. But once people get to know me, they hug me right back, so I guess that’s a plus.

Some people are more touchy-feely than others. Many families are more affectionate. It’s wise to check out the customs of other people before you offend them inadvertently. Manners and acceptable behavior varies around the world.

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When I was in Korea, it is their custom to dine sitting on a floor cushion around a low table. They never use a toothpick or try to dislodge a piece of food from their mouth in public without first covering their mouth with the other hand. Yet, they consider it an affirmation of downright deliciousness to burp after a meal, not just once, but several times in declaration.

An American who was sitting at our table put on lipstick and combed her hair after the meal. The shocked and embarrassed glares told me that this behavior was totally unacceptable in Korea, especially in polite company.

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Never one to give up on people, I look into their eyes while I shake their hand with both of mine. That’s my way of saying “I respect you. I really like you. I’m interested in what you have to say.”

My husband, on the other hand, is Norwegian. As he likes to say, “Norvegian’s look at your shoes and never give eye contact until they get to know ya’.” Actually it’s true. It was more than a few years of marriage before he could talk to me and look me in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time. I cherish looking into his eyes now for lengthy discussions or sharing the day’s trivialities.

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In business there’s a whole “other” set of rules and behavior. People like me who are outgoing and friendly need to be careful that their actions don’t betray them or cause co-workers to misinterpret their actions. Too much eye contact may seem flirtatious. Touching may seem forward or seen as a signal for more provocative behavior.

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You’re usually more at ease in being yourself, but you need to respect the space that others may need and want. Understand that you can’t please everyone. Be genuine and others will feel at ease, too.

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