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The awkward art of meeting and greeting: this is the only way strangers like to be touched

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You’ve just been introduced to a stranger. Do you… A) Offer your hand B) Reach in for a kiss on the cheek C) Or two kisses? 

If you’re anything like us, it’ll be too late before you decide on any one of these and your introduction will end with an awkward handshake slash kiss, which you’ll cringe over on your bus ride home. 

But help is at hand thanks to new research by Oxford University which has discovered exactly where people feel comfortable being touched by strangers. 

The study, which is considered the largest of its kind by asking more than 1,300 men and women from five countries to colour in areas of the human body that they would allow particular people to touch, found that strangers don’t like to be touched anywhere by a new acquaintance other than on their hands, which suggests that a handshake is probably the best way to go. 

However, researchers acknowledged that kissing a stranger on the cheek has become socially acceptable and, in that case, the best way to approach it is by simultaneously putting your hand on the arm of the person to make them feel at ease.

George W. Bush's awkward cheek kiss with Condoleezza Rice in November 2010

George W. Bush's awkward cheek kiss with Condoleezza Rice in November 2010

But scientists didn’t just stop at those fleeting interactions. They created extensive ‘touchability’ body maps which show where it's acceptable to touch friends, partners, siblings, parents and extended relatives.

Unsurprisingly, the graphs show the less we know someone the less comfortable we are with them touching us.

In general, women were found to be more comfortable with being touched than men, and men felt more comfortable being touched by women than other men.  

“We interpret touch depending on the context of the relationship,” evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar, who led the study, tells The Telegraph. “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.”

A visual map to socially acceptable touching

Key:

Yellow indicates comfortable and black indicates inappropriate
Blue indicated male relations and red indicates female relations

A visual map to socially acceptable touching

While our reactions to touch were found to be universal, the Finnish were the most relaxed about physical interactions and Brits were the least, with Italians only being slightly more comfortable than us.

Professor Dunbar added that people are touching each other less frequently as we increasingly use digital devices to communicate.  

“Even in an era of mobile communications and social media, touch is still important for establishing and maintaining the bonds between people,” he said, “We know that if people don’t see each other the quality of that relationship diminishes and your best friend will bump down to just an acquaintance.

“Social media does allow you to slow that decline but it doesn’t stop a relationship failing. You really need to see the whites of their eyes.”

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