Understanding Communicative Meanings of Touch

Touch is our most intimate and involving form of communication and helps us to keep good relationships with others. That is why we use expressions like “Let’s stay in touch,” “I’ll contact you when I get back,” and “I was touched by what another person said or did. — Stanley E. Jones, 1999, p. 192

Haptics is the discipline which studies the sense of touch. It is a form of nonverbal communication and the way by which people communicate via touching.

Touch, or the haptic sense, is extremely important for humans, as well as providing information about surfaces and textures. Haptics is a component in interpersonal relationships and vital in conveying physical intimacy.

There are many kinds of touch, like the positive touch, negative touch, playful touch, serious touch, control touch, etc. All these different kinds of nonverbal communicational touch are meant to communicate something specific.

Importance of Touch

Touch is the first sense to develop in the festus and probably the last sense to leave us when we die; it is also the most intimate and sophisticated of our senses. As Sachs (1988) put it, touch is “the foundation for communication with the world around us, and probably the single sense that is as old as life itself”.

The development of an infant’s haptic senses and how it relates to the development of the other senses such as vision has been the target of much research. Human babies have been observed to have enormous difficulty surviving if they do not possess a sense of touch, even if they retain sight and hearing. Babies who can perceive through touch tend to fare much better than those babies who cannot perceive through touch.

Not only does touch provide the first means of communication between babies and their mothers, but it also helps children understand and explore their environment, including their social relationships with others. Children can cope without sight or hearing, but, they are likely to suffer grave psychological and physical consequences if they are deprived of touch.

One can be emotionally touched by an action or object that evokes emotional response. To say “I was touched by your letter” implies the reader felt a strong emotion when reading it. It usually does not include anger, disgust, or other forms of emotional rejection unless in a sarcastic manner.

Touch can be thought of as a basic sense in that most life forms have a response to being touched. Of course, we all know that touch is one of the basic five senses that humans have, but touching is treated differently from one country to another. Socially acceptable levels of touching vary from one culture to another.

Touch is vital to human development; it enables children to reach full social and intellectual potential and helps them become comfortable with intimacy (Guerrero, 2000; Montagu, 1978). Touch is also important in communicating intimacy across a variety of relationship types.

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Dimensions of Touch

Although touch can undoubtedly promote physical and psychological well-being, not all touches are the same. Touches come in different varieties and can be affectionate and loving, condescending, or violent. Just as warm, loving touch can lead to positive outcomes, violent touch can lead to negative outcomes such as lowered self-esteem, stress, and illness.

We use everyday language to help us give vivid description of various forms of touch, such as “hitting,” “tugging,” “caressing,” “tapping,” “pinching,” “tackling,” “guiding,” “biting,” “kissing,” “rocking,” and “pushing,” just to name a few (Argyle, 1975; Morris, 1977). Although these terms are helpful in describing different types of touch, they do not tell the whole story.

The same type of touch can send different messages. For example, a pat on the shoulder can be comforting when given by a good friend who is providing you with social support, or it can be condescending when administered by a rival who says “better luck next time” after being promoted instead of you.

Similarly, you might welcome a kiss from someone you love, but back away immediately when someone you dislike tries to kiss you. As these examples show, the relationship between two people and the context in which the touch occurs are both important when people interpret touch.

People also interpret tactile behavior Opens in new window based on various dimensions of touch (Hertenstein, 2002; Weiss, 1979). These dimensions include intensity, duration, location, frequency, and the instrument of touch.

Within the remainder of this study, we describe each in turn.


Intensity refers to how soft or hard a touch is. For example, a “punch” can be playful if it is delivered softly or violent if it is delivered with force.


Duration refers to how brief or prolonged the touch is. A couple might hold hands for a moment or for an hour. In this case, the duration might help define how much intimacy the relational partners communicate to each other.


Location refers to the place where a person is touched. Touches to various body parts are interpreted differently.

For example, a study showed that elderly residents in a nursing home evaluated touch above the wrist by nurses more positively than touch below the wrist (Hollinger & Buschmann, 1993).


Frequency describes the number of touches that occur. Does a father kiss his daughter once when he picks her up from daycare, or does he kiss her multiple times?

Instrument of Touch

The instrument of touch makes a difference. Although people usually touch with their hands, they can also touch with other parts, such as feet, lips, and shoulders, or with objects, such as the tip of a pencil. For example, a mother might laugh and say “I’m going to get you” while tickling her son with a teddy bear.

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