Suddenly I was enfolded in clouds of perfume, furry jumpered arms and an ample bosom. I was being hugged at a networking event ...
And there it was, that internal punch of emotion right in the centre my chest as I fought down the urge to recoil. Who was this woman? Where had we met before? How did she know I didn't like to be hugged or kissed?
I had no answers, just an uncomfortable feeling as I submitted to the embrace with a typical English response of, "That's OK, how are you? Lovely to see you again" and ... I took a couple of steps backwards.
Touch is an essential part of building a relationship. The Neuroscientists will tell you it stimulates the release of Oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that facilitates bonding at lots of levels. We produce loads of it when breastfeeding our baby and also when having sex. And we produce it when we just touch another being, it gives us that connection, creates a bond and builds trust.
Other researchers have examined the role touch plays in building teamwork and trust. Here's a great example:
For seven months Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner recorded all of the observed touches in games played by each team in the US National Basketball Association at the start of the 2008 season.
More than 25 kinds of touch were recorded, including high fives and fist bumps, bear hugs and embraces, flying hip bumps and chest bumps and raps to the head expressing approval. On average, each player touched his teammates for about two seconds during the game; just two seconds.
But those brief touches mattered. The more a team's players touched each other at the beginning of the season, the better the team played at the season's end. They were more efficient with each possession on offence, helped each other out more on defence and hustled for loose balls. In the end, the high-touch teams won a couple more games during the season.
Still further analyses found that touch improved team performance even when controlling for whether or not the team was winning in the game that we coded, how well the team was expected to do in the preseason and how much money the players were making.
And remember: each player was only touching teammates on average for two seconds during the game.
And we know that touch helps us bond and comfort others. Our instinct when someone is bereaved or in distress is to touch them. Equally, we slap on the back or hug and kiss in celebration.
When F1 racing drivers win the Grand Prix, once they get out of the car, they throw themselves on their teammates waiting in the paddock and they, in return, crowd round to hug him and pat him on the back.
I'm no different. I do like to be hugged and kissed and embraced when I need comfort, am celebrating or want to bond with others. However, it needs to be in context and how much I like it depends on the depth of our relationship.
Oxytocin is not operating alone in our brain, but with a rich cocktail of neurotransmitters and nerve cells assessing the level of threat and safety of each interaction with others. Humans (and other animals) have rules of engagement covering who, when, where and how often you can touch another person.
Some are universal no-touch areas reserved for sexual intimacy, but otherwise, most are cultural and have evolved to facilitate trust and bonding as strangers become friends and then maintain that relationship. The degree of touching can vary hugely across cultures and across different generations.
In researching this blog post, I came across a lovely piece of research from the 1960s by Sidney Jourard. He went people watching, observing friends in conversation with friends in cafes to see how often they touched each other.
The results for the English and Americans came as no surprise to me. The English never touched each other and the Americans on average only twice. For me, even looking back from our less formal 21st Century position, the figures for the other two cultures quite shocked me. France averaged 110 touches whilst Puerto Rico topped that with 180!
This brings me nicely back to where I started: being hugged and kissed before breakfast at a networking meeting. Nowadays there is a range of greeting rituals we can apply in networking. From a simple handshake, the air kiss to the full hug and kiss. Get it right and it will build a bond and trust. Get it wrong then the other party feels uncomfortable and your relationship might stall altogether. My advice is two part.
- Firstly, if how you are greeted and how much you're touched doesn't bother you, take your lead from the other person. While you may be happy with a full hug, they might well prefer a simple handshake.
- The second part is being aware of your own style. If you're very ebullient, as in my encounter above, you may want to tone down somewhat. On the other hand, if you're very stiff and formal, then you may want to loosen up a little. The aim is to meet the other person in the middle.
I leave you with a couple of lovely images to transform your networking. First, how much more fun (maybe) it must be to go to breakfast with a room full of Puerto Ricans? The oxytocin must ooze out of every pore.
Or maybe we should celebrate every piece of business won with two seconds worth of back-slapping or high fives and every collaborative result by flinging ourselves into a mass of hugging as if we had just won the Grand Prix. Just a thought.
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