Keep your hands to yourself

We all know that workplace harassment is unacceptable, but what happens when it is covert and deceptive?

We all speak the language of touch, even if we aren't aware of it. In fact, only about 7% of communication is verbal, while up to 55% is delivered through nonverbal behavior (including tactile methods).

Regardless of intent, the simple act of touching elicits emotion. It can be innocent, like holding a loved one, or accidental, like a stranger accidentally bumping our arm on the subway, or deceptive, with malicious intent.

While there has been extensive research on verbal communication, nonverbal research on tactile communication is in its infancy. Current research indicates that compassion is communicated cross-culturally through touch, but research also shows that touch can be used for dominance, persuasion, and causing harm.

To make matters even more complicated, touch differs across cultures, with one gesture being appropriate and positive in one culture but disrespectful in another. As a result, it's critical to learn more about what happens when we touch each other to talk, especially at work.

👉 The Biology of Touch 👈

C-tactile (CT) nerve afferents are a system of afferent nerves discovered by scientists that respond preferentially to slow, gentle touch. These nerves transmit sensory data from various parts of the body to the central nervous system (CNS).

Evidence suggests that slow and gentle touch communicates love and intimacy. So, it is thought that CT nerve activation (also called "tactile activation") helps us show these feelings more than any other nonverbal behavior.

C-tactile (CT) nerve afferents,

Springer New York

Touch activates the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion, and correlates with the release of oxytocin and dopamine, assisting us in creating and maintaining social bonds that are essential to our survival.

On the other hand, studies have shown that not being touched, particularly as children, can lead to depression and low self-esteem as adults. That being said, not all touch is welcome, and discernment is essential, especially when out in the world or at work.

🤨 Covert Dominance 🤨

Do people use touch for selfish reasons? Of course.

Many people are aware of touch and will attempt to manipulate the positive feelings and emotions elicited by touch in order to elevate their status in a competitive environment. In her research, Nancy Henley discovered that a person in power is more likely to touch a subordinate, but the subordinate is not free to touch.

Because of the power differential between superior and subordinate, it is easy to become confused about whether the touch is motivated by dominance or intimacy. In general, research has shown that men touch more than women, often to subtly control or dominate. This is true for both men and women.

Despite the fact that touch is an important part of communication, most of us would not approach a stranger and touch them because touch is based on trust and familiarity. Touch is often soothing and creates a sense of safety when it is welcomed.

When you don't want to be touched, you may feel embarrassed, disgusted, or confused. This is why many people find it difficult to report a coworker who is bullying them or sexually harassing them. Because the majority of sexual harassment in the workplace occurs between a boss and an employee, it's critical to understand what types of leadership can lead to this type of behavior.

The Veil of Prestige

Workplace leadership can be divided into two types: prestige and dominance.

Prestige-based leadership is defined as the demonstration of knowledge and expertise that naturally earns respect. It is frequently preferred in societies where positive communal behaviors (such as warmth, care, and prosociality) are valued and rewarded with social benefits.

Dominant-based leadership employs aggression and intimidation to instill fear and force respect. This is common in business because people can make a lot of money regardless of how well they perform.

Sexual Harassment Comic

Most people understand that overt sexual harassment is socially unacceptable, despite the fact that it is still a major issue in many workplaces and that there are numerous laws prohibiting it.

What about less obvious forms of physical harassment and aggression?

These "friendly" touches are frequently justified as "accidental" or "unintentional." There is a reason why the definition of sexual harassment does not include the word "intent." Intent is extremely difficult to establish.

Only the alleged perpetrator can verify intent, creating a situation in which they have a veto over whether it was appropriate or not. Furthermore, you may not be able to express or demonstrate exactly what you mean when you speak.

Danger appears to exist when a person in a position of power gains prestige while still using subtle touch tactics to dominate. As a result, physical dominance is displayed behind a veil of communal prestige and friendliness.

In general, men are more likely to engage in these types of interactions. A hard slap on the back followed by a smile or a friendly handshake, for example, is painful.

For women, dominance is typically demonstrated through social aggression, which includes nonverbal behaviors such as causing harm to friendships and someone's social status through social exclusion and manipulation.

Lack of boundaries invites lack of respect.


Cultural Differences

If touch is a language, we are only now realizing how critical it is to respect our individual differences. There is diversity in tactile communication, just as there is in verbal communication.

Cultures around the world can be defined by a spectrum of contact or no contact, with some cultures being more comfortable with physical contact than others. Countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia are examples of low contact cultures. Countries such as France and Brazil, on the other hand, would be considered high-contact cultures.

Men hugging with quote saying "I miss handshakes."

Touching a stranger on the hand was only acceptable in a study with Japanese and British participants, but individuals with an emotional bond were allowed to touch larger bodily areas.

This finding implies that social touch for bonding may serve a similar function in East Asian and European cultures and is not solely cultural. However, a cultural difference in the pleasure derived from touch was observed in the same study.

Although both cultures showed similar changes in emotional bonding among different individuals, Japanese participants reported a lower overall pleasantness of being touched than British participants.

We are still learning about the meaning of these differences in contact comfortability, and one theory suggests that a high risk of infection can indicate greater conservatism, which makes sense given the trauma imprint caused by previous infection outbreaks and the relationship to contact/non-contact culture, especially as we study the societal changes caused by COVID-19.

Nonverbal communication is an elaborate secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.

Edward Sapir

Taking Action

According to research, workplace sexual harassment has negative consequences such as lower job satisfaction, long-term sick leave, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Because of this, and because it is the right thing to do, business leaders must deal with workplace harassment.

Using common stereotypes about men in positions of power, psychologist John Pryor developed the Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale (LSHS). Using this scale, he discovered that those who are more likely to harass have a psychological underpinning that justifies their sexual behavior. For instance, the notion that women make false complaints because "they asked for it."

🔥 Steps to Take 🔥

If you find yourself to be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, consider doing the following:

1. Inform the person that you will file a formal complaint if their inappropriate behavior does not stop.
2. Deal with the first instance of harassment so that a reaction to inappropriate touching doesn't get misread.
3. Maintain written records for each incident and collect physical evidence.
4. Speak with a legal professional to get advice on your options.
5. Send a written notification to your Human Resources Department.
6. File a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) if your employer refuses to investigate your claim.

The only alternative to a shuddering paralysis is to leap into action regardless of the consequences.

Alan Watts


Our words are only a fraction of what we intend to communicate to others and understanding how touch affects us and those around us is critical because it directly relates to our awareness of respecting personal space. 

While touch can bring up feelings of compassion and build intimate relationships, it can also strip us of our dignity and evoke shame. If it doesn't feel good, take action!


Charafeddine, R., Zambrana, I., Triniol, B., Mercier, H., Clément, F., & Kaufmann, L. et al. . (2020). How Preschoolers Associate Power with Gender in Male-Female Interactions: A Cross-Cultural Investigation. . Sex Roles, 83(7-8), 453-473.
Fuller, J. B., Marler, L. E., Cox, S. S., Simmering, M. J., Bennett, R. J., & Curry, J. L. . (2017). A Gendered Emotional Display Perspective on Workplace Touch and Perceived Supervisor Support. Journal of Managerial Issues, 29(4), 395–413.
Hawley, P., Little, T., & Card, N. . (2008). The myth of the alpha male: A new look at dominance-related beliefs and behaviors among adolescent males and females . International Journal Of Behavioral Development, 32(1), 76-88..
Hertenstein, M., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B., & Jaskolka, A. . (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6(3), 528-533. .
Keltner, D. . (2021). Hands On Research: The Science of Touch. Greater Good.
Kirsch, L., Krahé, C., Blom, N., Crucianelli, L., Moro, V., Jenkinson, P., & Fotopoulou, A. . (2018). Reading the mind in the touch: Neurophysiological specificity in the communication of emotions by touch. . Neuropsychologia, 116, 136-149. .
Levine, T.. (2014). Truth-Default Theory (TDT). Journal Of Language And Social Psychology, 33(4), 378-392. .
Martin, M.. (2021). How Likely Is Someone To Sexually Harass Others? This Scale Determines..
Rakkolainen, I., Freeman, E., Sand, A., Raisamo, R., & Brewster, S. . (2021). A Survey of Mid-Air Ultrasound Haptics and Its Applications. IEEE Transactions On Haptics, 14(1), 2-19. .
Remland, M., & Jones, T. . (1988). Cultural and Sex Differences in Touch Avoidance. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 67(2), 544-546.
Riggio, R. . (2021). How Some Men Use Body Language to Control Others. Psychology Today.
Ronay, R., Maddux, W., & von Hippel, W. . (2020). Inequality rules: Resource distribution and the evolution of dominance- and prestige-based leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 31(2), 101246.
Schneider, K., Wesselmann, E., & DeSouza, E. . (2017). Confronting Subtle Workplace Mistreatment: The Importance of Leaders as Allies. . Frontiers In Psychology, 8. .
Sekerdej, M., Simão, C., Waldzus, S., & Brito, R.. (2018). Keeping in Touch with Context: Non-verbal Behavior as a Manifestation of Communality and Dominance. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, 42(3), 311-326.
Suvilehto, J., Nummenmaa, L., Harada, T., Dunbar, R., Hari, R., & Turner, R. et al. . (2019). Cross-cultural similarity in relationship-specific social touching. Biological Sciences, 286(1901), 20190467.
Team, U. . (2021). Haptics: 6 Reasons Touch is Important. Ultraleap.
von Mohr, M., Kirsch, L., & Fotopoulou, A. (2021). . (2021). Social touch deprivation during COVID-19: effects on psychological wellbeing and craving interpersonal touch. Royal Society Open Science, 8(9), 210287..

I tend to be a toucher - it's my way of expressing compassion, empathy, support, etc. And I like that type of touch in return. In a previous relationship, I was with a person who never touched me, and in fact, would recoil if I touched him. That was awful, and after a few years of being with this person, I felt like a vacant shell of myself. The lack of touch took a complete toll on my mental health. So I know I am a person who thrives on physical touch. But I also know many people do not enjoy that type of casual contact. My 16yo daughter, for example, does not like to be touched. As her mom, I've learned to respect her boundaries and become mindful that, although my natural inclination is to be affectionate, especially with people I love, that is not comfortable for everyone. In general with affection, there is an appropriate time and place. I think cultivating an awareness of who people are and what they're comfortable with, is key to having successful relationships, both personal and professional.

Sometimes I don't read too much into it (as a receiver) especially when its someone from a different culture, unless I feel it is totally inappropriate that crosses the line of what clearly is harassment (fondling, groping). I mean that should encompass all cultures, unless I could be wrong (and I would be curious to know what cultures make this seem a good thing for acquaintances). I do respect cultural differences though so I would probably brush up a bit on some basic cultural knowledge if I am aware beforehand I would be meeting said person, especially when it comes to a business meeting.

It was interesting to read this article because I actually had a conversation with one of my cousins a couple weeks ago about how some people are just very open and think nothing of it to hug everybody. We both struggle with being very hands-on in relationships, so for example I’m not the type to just hug everybody goodbye and some of my family members hug when they see each other and hug before they leave. When I get hugged it makes me feel like a straight log standing there while they hug me. So even with close family I really don’t like it whenever it’s time for touching or hugging.

So I could only imagine how uncomfortable I would feel if it was a coworker who came around and tryed to sit close to me at my desk or try to give me a hug when they were leaving so I also think it also depends on not just a culture but the person. Some people are really hands-on and then other people with the same upbringing might just feel very uncomfortable so I think that’s also something to consider to. Also for some people with special needs it could be a trigger if you were to touch them just a light touch or a hard touch could be a trigger for them so it’s something to consider as well.

Some people need a soft touch, others a firm handshake. The strength and duration of touch can affect how we're perceived as well as the level of comfort we feel in a given social situation. As with any language, there are rules when it comes to touching but not everyone speaks the same language so no one knows when they have violated those rules.

This is absolutely true!! A particular gesture may be appropriate and positive in one culture and disrespectful in another. I always try and respect that especially during today's time. Seems like we have even lost the simple handshake and it has been replaced with the fist bump. I remember back in my single days and having a first date and it was very obvious when there was a connection by just a simple touch on the leg or arm during a conversation. It is a very subtle way of showing that there is an interest.

It’s true that touch is perceived very differently across cultures.  In America, greeting another acquaintance from America with a kiss on the cheek or a hug could make the other person stiffen up.  However, if the person is from say Spain, or France, it’s totally normal.  It really does boil down to who you’re interacting with, and where.  I have a lot of Spaniard friends, and it’s customary to greet with a kiss on the cheek, and a hug regardless of how close.  With my American friends, I only do a hug/kiss if I’m really close to them.  In the workplace, touches on the shoulder, arm, legs etc can get really uncomfortable if it’s your superior doing the touching. This is an American point of view.  I had a friend who worked in France however, and it was totally normal to give ‘la base” to coworkers or new acquaintances for greetings.