Social conventions about how to appropriately greet strangers, friends, and family members have stood the test of time — and now it’s now been scientifically proven: You can kiss your partner hello and hug your child, but go any further than shaking a stranger’s hand, and you stand the chance of creeping them out.
In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers mapped the areas of the body where men and women feel comfortable being touched and found that it really depends on the relationship.
Red areas on the body maps below show where the respondents said they would be uncomfortable being touched by different people, ranging from partners to strangers. Yellow and white areas indicate where they would feel comfortable being touched. The blue lines (outlining the crotch and the buttocks in many cases) indicate “taboo zones,” where absolutely no touching in that area would be comfortable.
And here are the maps for female and male subjects, showing that women seem to be more comfortable with touch in general:
The study found that most respondents were comfortable being touched anywhere on their bodies by their partners. The respondents also said close friends and relatives could touch the head and upper torso, while strangers could only touch their hands.
The study is the largest ever done on physical touch, the researchers wrote, with 1,368 respondents from Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
The gender of the subject and the toucher played a huge part. Women were more open to being touched by other women, especially their mothers, sisters, or female friends. Even men were more comfortable being touched by female friends than male friends, while both men and women were generally uncomfortable being touched by men.
“The higher the emotional bond, the larger the bodily area available for touching,” the researchers wrote.
In the chart below showing how much of the body men and women would be comfortable having touched, female touchers are represented with red bars, and male touchers are represented with blue bars. It’s clear women see more of their bodies as off limits to male friends than female friends, for example:
The study reports that most of the participants, both male and female, also felt closer to their female friends and relatives.
That might be because of a feedback loop, the study’s lead author suggested. “Touching is an important means of maintaining social relationships,” Julia Suvilehto, a researcher from Aalto University, told The Independent. “The greater the pleasure caused by touching a specific area of the body, the more selectively we allow others to touch it.”
“Somewhat surprisingly to the Finnish and Italian authors of the present study,” the researchers noted, Italians were more uncomfortable with being touched than the Finnish, the researchers wrote.
The researchers gathered the participant’s responses using an online survey. The participants were asked to paint the areas of the body they’d be comfortable being touched by each member of their social network.
Because it was an online survey, the researchers write that their sample included an oversampling of young, well-educated women. The findings might also be limited to Western cultures. People in Japan, for example, where bowing is the accepted form of greeting, might not be as comfortable with touching hands.
And of course, comfort levels vary from person to person; the averages from a group won’t tell you what’s comfortable for any particular individual.
So the next time you’re unsure what to do at the next social gathering, you might want to play it safe: wave.
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