We perform physical activity to keep our lungs active and our heart strong. We’re encouraged to eat more fruit and fibre, and a low cholesterol diet for heart and colon health. And for the largest organ in our body … our skin …. Er? In some cultures (e.g. Thailand), it’s “normal” to have a weekly massage … in the UK … not so mainstream. So, what’s important about touch?
Over eighty years ago it was found that infants died if they were deprived of touch. Back in the 1930’s there was a condition known as hospitalism, where children who stayed long term in hospital died through lack of social contact. Fortunately this term has been lost from our vocabulary, as the causes for these deaths were found and eradicated. Spitz (1946) noted:
“At the beginning of our century one of the great foundling homes in Germany had a mortality rate of 71.5% in infants in the first year of life”
Stewart & Joines (1987), in TA Today summarise:
“They [the infants], were fed well, kept clean and warm. Yet they were more likely to experience physical and emotional difficulties than were children brought up by their mothers or other direct caretakers. …. They had little physical contact with those who looked after them. They lacked the touching, cuddling and stroking which babies would normally get from their caretakers”.
Psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated the need for touch with chimps, whereby baby chimps were offered a choice of two surrogate mothers, one made of a wire frame, and food, and the other, no food, but where the frame was covered in soft material. The thinking at the time was babies “just” needed food. He demonstrated that whilst the chimps would feed from the wire frame surrogate, they dashed back to the cloth covered surrogate, through choice and even when fearful, demonstrating that touch to be more important than food?
So, if lack of physical contact in infants caused death, what about this deprivation in adults? Eric Berne (in Stewart & Joines) suggested that “as adults we still crave physical contact. But we also learn to substitute other forms of recognition in place of physical touching. A smile, a compliment, or for that matter a frown or an insult – all show us that our existence has been recognised.”
Substitute? I wonder if there’s a case for having both?
I’m talking about touch that’s a mutually pleasant and beneficial experience. What’s considered pleasant will be different for different people, with different people, and in different environments, and I think it important to also emphasise that both parties have to be in agreement. Touch can and does incorporate many different areas, including massage and reflexology. So let me narrow from general mutually beneficial touch, to the specifics of hugging.
I think it’s fair to say there are cultural norms, social norms, and appropriate codes of conduct in different environments. Most of us would not want to be accosted and randomly hugged by a stranger, however well meaning. I remember an evening out with work colleagues, where a chap I had occasionally worked with, came up to me and gave me a big public hug. I remember being quite upset, as a woman in a male dominated industry I was concerned that this would give out inappropriate and inaccurate signals about our relationship. The mutuality was missing.
Subsequently I changed to a job in training where colleagues may not see each other for weeks on end, and many of us hug on “first meeting”. More recently, in a new job, I find myself moving towards giving a colleagues a hug on “first meeting”, and realise it’s inappropriate for the context. Given that it has the potential to be a bit of a social minefield out there, about what’s appropriate, with whom and when … and whilst I’m all for the spontaneous hug, there can be no harm in asking “can I give you a hug?” Any slight potential embarrassment as you raise your arms to hug, as the other person declines, has to be better than the awkward embrace. Some people don’t want physical contact – and that’s fine too. And of course many people will accept your offer.
Can I give you a hug? Look out for Guerrilla Free Hugs near you!
Berne, E. (1975). What do you say after you say hello? : London: Corgi.
Spitz, R. A., & Wolf, K. M. (1946). Anaclitic depression; an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood, II. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 313-342.
Stewart, I., & Joines, V. (1987). TA today : a new introduction to transactional analysis. Nottingham: Lifespace.
© guerrilla hugs 2011