A new study which shows where people feel comfortable being touched has found that stangers should stick to shaking hands
It is a familiar social dilemma. You meet a stranger for the first time and in a split second must decide whether to offer a chilly handshake or risk offence with a kiss on the cheek.
But new research from Oxford University has found that erring on the side of caution could be the best way to put people at their ease.
The biggest study ever conducted into physical contact suggests that most people harbour an underlying reticence at being touched by a stranger anywhere but on their hands.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to greet new acquaintances with a kiss on one, or even both cheeks. But the new research indicates that people are actually perturbed by such a high level of intimacy from a stranger.
Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, said that although kissing at first meeting was now socially acceptable, people will often adopt an ‘arm hold’ manoeuvre to make the practice less alarming.
“Most people will put their hand on the arm of the person as a braking mechanism and to let the other person known that they are not about to chomp them,” he said.
“If you just launched at someone I think most people would be alarmed.
“We interpret touch depending on the context of the relationship. We may perceive a touch in a particular place from a relative or friend as a comforting gesture, while the same touch from a partner might be more pleasurable, and from a stranger it would be entirely unwelcome.
“I would guess that kissing a stranger on the cheek would still make a lot of people uncomfortable. But with modern life it has become as conventional as a handshake and so no longer seems overly-familiar, especially if you have been introduced by a friend.”
Touching is critically important in human relationships and is thought to be a relic of grooming techniques practiced by monkeys and apes who use it to form social bonds.
The answers were combined to create a map showing for the first time where the touchable areas of the body are for particular relationships and revealing which areas are strictly off limits.
Some results were unsurprising, such as women are generally more comfortable with being touched than men. However there were some unexpected findings, such as men would rather be touched on their genitals by a casual female acquaintance than by their own mother. For women however it would be completely taboo to be touched intimately be someone other than their partner or mother.
Unexpectedly Italians were less comfortable with being touched than Russians, while overall Finns were the most comfortable.