Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand (if you dare): The Perils and Power of Touch at Work

Version 2

Some years ago, I was invited to attend an ‘experience’ day for a rather well known fast-food chain. The idea was to get a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective of the operation, and involved donning the uniform, taking a tour, and being instructed on some of the tasks that go on in the kitchens behind the counter (I wasn’t allowed to be on the counter – quite rightly, too, as I’m not sure I couldn’t have processed even the simplest order).

This was my first experience of being behind the scenes in a restaurant. Though I had quite a few different part-time jobs as a student, none of them involved food or drink, so it was a truly eye-opening experience. And one incident, in particular, still sticks in my mind.

Shortly after I’d arrived, I was placed in the basement staff room to await my uniform (unfortunately, when it did arrive, I was still too long in the body for it, so the overall look was slightly crop-top – not a good look, but there we go).

As I was sitting there, a group of people came in who were about to start their shifts – four guys and one girl. They clearly knew each other very well – there was lots of laughter and banter and “what happened about X” conversations.

What really surprised me, though, was when the girl pulled off her top, and stood, in her bra, chatting away very merrily to the other guys, as if nothing was unusual about this.

It was all done very casually, naturally. There was nothing, apparently, sexualised about this – for her, I’m sure, it was like getting changed in front of a brother. No one batted an eyelid – expect me, who didn’t quite know where to look.

It wasn’t as if there was no where else to change. Had she been of a more modest persuasion, she could have gone into one of the rest rooms, but this was, clearly, no big deal to her or anyone else.

I couldn’t help wondering how many women would feel comfortable conversing with their male colleagues in their bra in the place where I worked at the time. I suspected not many. Not even one, in fact. And, for that matter, I didn’t think many of the guys in the office would feel comfortable publicly going topless either (okay, there’s always a gym bunny who’ll strip at any given opportunity, but these guys are few and far between).

So what was this? Was this a youth thing, a culture thing; a very individualist, slightly exhibitionistic thing? I was a bit puzzled – and then I was taken up to the shop floor, and a few things feel into place for me.

I couldn’t believe how confined the space was in the kitchens. Moving around these rabbit-warren runs, you were constantly brushing past one person or another, or gently shifting them out of your way. What I noticed with the whole of the team working there was how comfortable they seemed to be with this tactility. They were all high-fiving, leaning on each other, hugging each other. It was a total love-in.

There were strong bonds here, that was clear, and I wondered whether those bonds were kind of enforced by the structure of the physical environment: in other words, when you’re all forced into physical intimacy, does that expedite the social contact all primates use for social cohesion (I felt sure if there were fleas to pick off of each other, this lot would have no problem with that)?

Of course, taken into the office environment, it’s a hard to thing to transpose. There is space (hopefully). At the very least, you can probably move around without having to touch someone. Any physical contact, therefore, is somewhat premeditated, as it were; you have to actively reach out and touch someone (I hear the echo of a song, somewhere in that…).

Mmm. And this is where it all (far from being an automatic, natural, human response) gets a little tricky.

From the ‘simple’ handshake to social kissing to celebratory hugging, touch, in the office, is an area fraught with danger.

There’s no such thing as even a simple handshake: is it the bone-crusher, the lingerer, the overly-emphatic, the wet fish?

Is it one kiss or two; to the flesh or to the air; the preserve of women, gay men and ‘continentals’ or okay for everybody? Okay on greeting but unnecessary on departing, or only for leaving, or only for leaving for work-social occasions?

And hugging! When is that appropriate (and not in danger of being condescending, forced, uncomfortable or borderline harassment)?

Of course, as with so much in life, it’s all about context. Even the ‘Safeguarding in Schools’ advice (school being the starting point of our constructed relationship with touch) doesn’t really provide any greater clarity:

It is not possible to be specific about the appropriateness of each physical contact, since an action that is appropriate with one pupil, in one set of circumstances, may be inappropriate in another, or with a different child.

But we still hear the stories about teachers who can no longer hug a child in tears or hold a hand without consulting a parent first, with the threat of litigation, of something being seen as untoward, tying our hands behind our backs in spite of our most natural human instincts.

As with so much in life, sometimes the evils of a tiny minority end up terrorising us all.

Though adult-child physical interactions are understandably, and rightly, held under close scrutiny (and, likewise, those with vulnerable adults), surely when it’s a case of “We’re all adults here,” everyone should be perfectly fine to rub along together, right?

Well, as I’ve listed above, sadly, this isn’t so; even the most basic physical interactions can cause anxiety. Which is such a shame, as there’s a lot to be said for the power of touch.

Some people do it very well and very naturally. I’ve worked with a couple of ‘universally-tactile’ people over the years who were able to give anyone a quick back rub in a totally non-creepy and non-intrusive way.

I’ve also worked with a couple of people who you felt were invading your body space while standing six feet away.

Like I said, it’s tricky, and very individual – which is always the hardest thing to legislate for. So we stay away from it, in our offices, in our cubicles, touching screens instead of people.

I got thinking about this again as, last week, I had the privilege of visiting a residential centre for people with severe learning disabilities. When interviewing one of the support workers there, he told me about a particularly challenging resident who was prone to getting physically violent at times:

The thing is, when you’ve worked closely with her and can start to identify some of the triggers, you can, sometimes, stop her having a total meltdown. I’ve learned that if you sit with her, and just very slowly and gently rub your finger on her hand like that, it really settles her. She starts to breathe, calms down and goes off into a bit of a dream. It’s just the simplest little thing, but it works.

The power of touch.

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