Haptic communication

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This article is about the study of touching communication and behaviour. For other uses, see Haptics.
A boy laughing as he is tickled

Haptic communication refers to the ways in which people and other animals communicate and interact via the sense of touch. As well as providing information about surfaces and textures, touch, or the haptic sense, is a component of communication in interpersonal relationships that is nonverbal and nonvisual. Touch is extremely important for humans and is vital in conveying physical intimacy. Haptics is a branch of nonverbal communication.

Touch can be categorized in terms of meaning as positive, playful, control, ritualistic, task-related or unintentional. It can be both sexual (kissing is one such example that is sometimes sexual) and platonic (such as hugging or tickling). Touch is the earliest sense to develop in the fetus. 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, even without sight and hearing, tend to fare much better.

In chimpanzees the sense of touch is highly developed. As newborns they see and hear poorly but cling strongly to their mothers. Harry Harlow conducted a controversial study involving rhesus monkeys and observed that monkeys reared with a "terry cloth mother", a wire feeding apparatus wrapped in softer terry cloth which provided a level of tactile stimulation and comfort, were considerably more emotionally stable as adults than those with a mere wire mother.[1] Touching is treated differently from one country to another. Socially acceptable levels of touching varies from one culture to another. In the Thai culture, touching someone's head may be considered to be rude. Remland and Jones (1995) studied groups of people communicating and found that in England (8%), France (5%) and the Netherlands (4%), touching was rare compared to the Italian (14%) and Greek (12.5%) sample.[2]

Striking, pushing, pulling, pinching, kicking, strangling and hand-to-hand fighting are forms of touch in the context of physical abuse. In a sentence like "I never touched him/her" or "Don't you dare to touch him/her" the term touch may be meant as euphemism for either physical abuse or sexual touching. To 'touch oneself' is a euphemism for masturbation. The word touch has many other metaphorical uses. One can be emotionally touched, referring to an action or object that evokes an 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 used in a sarcastic manner. Stoeltje (2003) wrote about how Americans are ‘losing touch’ with this important communication skill. During a study conducted by University of Miami School of Medicine, Touch Research Institutes, American children were said to be more aggressive than their French counterparts while playing at a playground. It was noted that French women touched their children more often than the American parents.[citation needed]


Heslin outlines five haptic categories:[3]

expresses task-orientation
expresses ritual interaction
expresses idiosyncratic relationship
expresses emotional attachment
expresses sexual intent

The intent of a touch is not always exclusive and touching can evolve to each one of Heslin’s categories.


Managers should know the effectiveness of using touch while communicating to subordinates, but need to be cautious and understand how touch can be misunderstood. A hand on the shoulder for one person may mean a supportive gesture, while it could mean a sexual advance to another person. Working with others and using touch to communicate, a manager needs to be aware of each person’s touch tolerance.

Henley’s (1977) research found that a person in power is more likely to touch a subordinate, but the subordinate is not free to touch in kind. Touch is a powerful nonverbal communication tool and this different standard between a superior and subordinate can lead to confusion whether the touch is motivated by dominance or intimacy according to Borisoff and Victor.[4]

Walton[5] stated in his book that touching is the ultimate expression of closeness or confidence between two people, but not seen often in business or formal relationships. Touching stresses how special the message is that is being sent by the initiator. "If a word of praise is accompanied by a touch on the shoulder, that’s the gold star on the ribbon," wrote Walton.


Moving from one haptic category to another can become blurred by culture. There are many areas in the United States where a touch on the forearm is accepted as socially correct and polite. However, in the Midwest, this is not always an acceptable behavior.

The initial connection to another person in a professional setting usually starts off with a touch, specifically a handshake. A person's handshake can speak volumes about them and their personality. Chiarella (2006) wrote an article for Esquire magazine explaining to the predominantly male readership how handshakes differ from person to person and how they send nonverbal messages. He mentioned that holding the grip longer than two seconds will result in a stop in the verbal conversation, thus the nonverbal will override the verbal communication.

Jones explained communication with touch as the most intimate and involving form which helps people to keep good relationships with others.[6] His study with Yarbrough covered touch sequences and individual touches.

Touch sequences fall into two different types, repetitive and strategic. Repetitive is when one person touches and the other person reciprocates. The majority of these touches are considered positive. Strategic touching is a series of touching usually with an ulterior or hidden motive thus making them seem to be using touch as a game to get someone to do something for them.

More common than the sequential touches are the individual or single touches. They must be read by using the total context of what was said, the nature of the relationship and what kind of social setting was involved when the person was touched.

Yarbrough designed a blueprint for how to touch. She designated the different body areas as to whether they are 'touchable' or not. Non-vulnerable body parts (NVBP) are the hand, arm, shoulder and upper back, and vulnerable body parts (VBP) are all other body regions.

Civil inattention is defined as the polite way to manage interaction with strangers by not engaging in any interpersonal communication or needing to respond to a stranger’s touch. Goffman uses an elevator study to explain this phenomenon.[7] It is uncommon for people to look at, talk to, or touch the person next to them. While it may be so crowded that they 'touch' another person, they will often maintain an expressionless demeanor so not to affect those around them.


It is more acceptable for women to touch than men in social or friendship settings, possibly because of the inherent dominance of the person touching over the person being touched. Whitcher and Fisher conducted a study to see whether therapeutic touch to reduce anxiety differed between the sexes.[8] A nurse was told to touch patients for one minute while the patients looked at a pamphlet during a routine preoperative procedure. Females reacted positively to the touch, whereas males did not. It was surmised that males equated the touch to being treated as inferior or dependent.

Touching among family members has been found to affect the behavior of those involved. Various factors are at work within a family setting. As a child grows older, the amount of touching by the parent decreases.

Boys distance themselves from their parents at an earlier age than girls. There is more touching with the same sex parent than with cross-sex parents.

A study of nonverbal communication on how men 'converse' in bars shows that women like men to touch, but it is their touching of other men that intrigues them. The men who are touching others are perceived as having a higher status and social power than those that aren't touching others.

The study found that women were more receptive to men who demanded the most social space, and that when a woman comes into a bar, men will move their drinks far apart to signal to her that they have space in their 'domain' for them.


Main article: Physical intimacy
Healthy touch

The primary nonverbal behavior that has the biggest effect on interpersonal relationships is touch.

The amount of touching increases as a relationship moves from impersonal to personal.

Three areas of public touch between couples have been studied: the amount of touch between a couple in the initial stages of a romantic relationship, how much touching goes on between the couple and the extent of touching with the amount of touch men and women displayed and who initiated the touch and when they initiated it.

Public touch can serve as a ‘tie sign’ that shows others that your partner is “taken”.[9] When a couple is holding hands, putting their arms around each other, this is a ‘tie sign’ showing others that you are together. The use of ‘tie signs’ are used more often by couples in the dating and courtship stages than between their married counterparts according to Burgoon, Buller, and Woodall.[10]

Studies have also shown a difference between the sexes on who touches when. In the initial stages of a relationship, men often follow socially prescribed gender roles. Patterson indicated that men fulfilling this social role would touch more and after initial touch in casual relationships and as the relationship became more intimate during serious dating or marriage relationships, women would touch more.[11] American culture still dictates that men ‘make the first move’ in the context of a dating relationship.

Touching between married couples may help maintain good health. In a study by University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan, women under stress showed signs of immediate relief by merely holding their husband’s hand. This seemed to be effective when the woman was part of a satisfying marriage.


Touching in intimate relationships may also be violent at times. McEwan and Johnson categorize violent touch in relationships into two categories: intimate terrorism and common couple violence.[12] Intimate terrorism is characterized by a need to control or dominate a relationship, escalation over time, high frequency and severity. Common couple violence, on the other hand, is often a result of minor conflict. Common couple violence is less frequent and severe, and does not escalate over time. There are two major differences between intimate terrorism and common couple violence. Common couple violence comes in episodes rather than escalating over time. One study in 1999 by Geiser gave further evidence to this notion and reported that in fact males are significantly more likely to engage in nonverbal aggression and violence. Persons seeking help with violent intimate relationships may contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or The National Violence Prevention Network.


According to Givens (1999), the process of nonverbal communication or negotiation is to send and receive messages in an attempt to gain someone’s approval or love. Courtship, which may lead to love, is defined as a nonverbal message designed to attract sexual partners. During courtship, we exchange nonverbal communication gestures to tell each other to come nearer and nearer until we touch. Essential signals in the path to intimacy include facial nuzzles, kissing and caressing each other.

Courtship has five phases which include the attention phase, recognition phase, conversation phase, touching phase, and the love-making phase. Haptics takes place more during the last two phases.

The touching phase:
First touch: Is likely to be more “accidental” than premeditated by touching a neutral body part and where the recipient either accepts the touch or rejects it through body movement.

Hugging: The embrace is the most basic way of telling someone that you love them and possibly need them too.

Intention to touch: A nonverbal communication haptic code or cue is the intention behind it. Reaching your hand across the table to a somewhat unknown person is used as a way to show readiness to touch.

Kissing: Moving in concert by turning heads to allow for the lips to touch is the final part of the fourth stage of courtship, the kiss.

The final phase, love-making, which includes tactile stimulation during foreplay known as the light or protopathic touch. Any feelings of fear or apprehension may be calmed through other touching like kissing, nuzzling, and a gentle massage.

Meanings of touch[edit]

Touch research conducted by Jones and Yarbrough (1985) revealed 18 different meanings of touch, grouped in seven types: Positive affect (emotion), playfulness, control, ritual, hybrid (mixed), task-related, and accidental touch.

Positive affect touches[edit]

These touches communicate positive emotions and occur mostly between persons who have close relationships. These touches can be further classified as support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual interest or intent, and affection.

Support: Serve to nurture, reassure, or promise protection. These touches generally occur in situations which either virtually require or make it clearly preferable that one person show concern for another who is experiencing distress.

Appreciation: Express gratitude for something another person has done.

Inclusion: Draw attention to the act of being together and suggest psychological closeness.

Sexual: Express physical attraction or sexual interest.

Affection: Express generalized positive regard beyond mere acknowledgment of the other.

Playful touches[edit]

These touches serve to lighten an interaction. These touches communicate a double message since they always involve a play signal, either verbal or nonverbal, which indicates the behavior is not to be taken seriously. These touches can be further classified as affectionate and aggressive.

Playful affection: Serve to lighten interaction. The seriousness of the positive message is diminished by the play signal. These touches indicate teasing and are usually mutual.

Playful aggression: Like playful affection these touches are used to serve to lighten interaction, however, the play signal indicates aggression. These touches are initiated, rather than mutual.

Control touches[edit]

An Afghan police officer pats a child on the head.

These touches serve to direct the behavior, attitude, or feeling state of the recipient. The key feature of these touches is that almost all of the touches are initiated by the person who attempts influence. These touches can be further classified as compliance, attention-getting, and announcing a response.

Compliance: Attempts to direct behavior of another person, and often, by implication, to influence attitudes or feelings.

Attention-getting: Serve to direct the touch recipient’s perceptual focus toward something.

Announcing a response: Call attention to and emphasize a feeling state of initiator; implicitly requests affect response from another.

Ritualistic touches[edit]

These touches consist of greeting and departure touches. They serve no other function than to help make transitions in and out of focused interaction.

Greeting: Serve as part of the act of acknowledging another at the opening of an encounter.

Departure: Serve as a part of the act of closing an encounter

Hybrid touches[edit]

These touches involve two or more of the meanings described above. These touches can be further classified as greeting/affection and departure/affection.

Greeting/affection: Express affection and acknowledgement of the initiation of an encounter

Departure/affection: Express affection and serve to close an encounter

Task-related touches[edit]

These touches are directly associated with the performance of a task. These touches can be further classified as reference to appearance, instrumental ancillary, and instrumental intrinsic.

Reference to appearance: Point out or inspect a body part or artefact referred to in a verbal comment about appearance

Instrumental ancillary: Occur as an unnecessary part of the accomplishment of a task.

Instrumental intrinsic: Accomplish a task in and out of itself i.e., a helping touch.

Accidental touches[edit]

These touches are perceived as unintentional and have no meaning. They consist mainly of brushes. Research by Martin in a retailing context found that male and female shoppers who were accidentally touched from behind by other shoppers left a store earlier than people who had not been touched and evaluated brands more negatively, resulting in the Accidental Interpersonal Touch effect [13]

Culture and touch[edit]

The amount of touching that occurs within a culture is largely based on the relative high context or low context of the culture.

High context culture[edit]

A culture assumes that its members already know the cultural rules. Expectations do not have to be outlined or specifically verbalized. In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, and cues are given in a subtle manner. High context cultures are prevalent in Eastern cultures and in countries where the cultural demographics don’t vary widely. High-context means that "most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message." (Hall, 1976, p 79). High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time. The unchanging culture solidifies rules and expectations throughout time. Members know exactly when to touch and how to touch based on a strict nonverbal commonly understood code. The Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America are examples of high context cultures.

Low context culture[edit]

A culture that communicates societal expectations through words as opposed to inferences or contexts. Low-context communication means that "the mass of information is vested in the explicit code" (Hall, 1976 p 70). People from low-context cultures value facts, figures, and candor. Americans and Germans are typically regarded as low context cultures who value the individual in the society.

Internal cultural differences[edit]

Frequency of touch also varies significantly between different cultures. Harper refers to several studies, one of which examined touching in coffee houses. During a one-hour sitting 180 touchings were observed for Puerto Ricans, 110 for French, none for English and 2 for Americans. (Harper, 297). In order to know if someone was touching more frequently than normal it would be necessary to first know what is normal in that culture. In high touch countries a kiss on the cheek is considered a polite greeting while in Sweden it may be considered presumptuous. Jandt relates that two men holding hands will in some countries be a sign of friendly affection, whereas in the United States the same tactile code would probably be interpreted as a symbol of homosexual love (85).

Emotion and touch[edit]

Recently, researchers have shown that touch communicates distinct emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sympathy, love, and gratitude.[14] Moreover, the accuracy with which subjects were capable of communicating the emotions were commensurate with facial and vocal displays of emotion.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harlow, H. (1958) American Psychologist, 13, 673.
  2. ^ Remland, M, Jones, T, & Brinkman, H 1995, 'Interpersonal Distance, Body Orientation, and Touch: Effects of Culture, Gender, and Age', Journal Of Social Psychology, 135, 3, pp. 281-297
  3. ^ Heslin, R. (1974, May) Steps toward a taxomony of touching. Paper presented to the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.
  4. ^ Borisoff, D., & Victor, D.A. (1989). Conflict management: A communication skills approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  5. ^ Walton, D. (1989), Are you communicating? You can’t manage without it, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing.
  6. ^ Jones & Yarbrough (1985), A naturalistic study of the meanings of touch. Communication Monographs, 52., 19-56.
  7. ^ Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places, New York: Free Press.
  8. ^ Whitcher, S. J., & Fisher, J. D., (1979). Multidimensional reaction to therapeutic touch in a hospital setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 87-96.
  9. ^ Morris, D. (1977), Manwatching : A field guide to human behavior. New York: Abrams.
  10. ^ Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., & Woodall, W. G. (1996), Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue (2nd ed.), New York: McGraw-Hill.
  11. ^ Patterson, M. L. (1988). Functions of nonverbal behavior in close relationships. In S. W. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  12. ^ McEwan, B., and Johnson, S.L. Relational Violence: The Darkest Side of Haptic Communication. The Nonverbal Communication Reader. Ed. L.K. Guerrero and M.L. Hall. 3rd ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland P, 2008. 232-39.
  13. ^ Martin, Brett A. S. (2012), "A Stranger’s Touch: Effects of Accidental Interpersonal Touch on Consumer Evaluations and Shopping Time", Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (June), 174-184.
  14. ^ Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B. Bulleit, B. & Jaskolka, A. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6, 528-533.
  15. ^ Hertenstein, M. J., Verkamp, J., Kerestes, A., & Holmes, R. (2006). The communicative functions of touch in humans, non-human primates and rats: A review and synthesis of the empirical research. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 132, 5-94.


  • Carney, R., Hall A, and LeBeau L. (2005). Beliefs about the nonverbal expression of social power. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 29(2),118.
  • Phyllis Davis: The Power of Touch - The Basis for Survival, Health, Intimacy, and Emotional Well-Being
  • DeVito J., Guerrero, L. and Hecht, M.(1999). The nonverbal communication reader: classic and contemporary readings. (2nd ed). Illinois: Waveland Press.
  • Geiser, J.L. "An Explanation of the Relationship of Nonverbal Aggression with Verbal Aggression, Nonverbal Immediacy Assertiveness, and Responsiveness." https://eidr.wvu.edu/files/947/geiser_j_etd.pdf.
  • Givens, David B. (2005). Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship, St. Martin's Press, New York.
  • Guerrero, L. (2004), Chicago Sun-Times, “Women like man’s touch, but there’s a catch. They prefer to see it on another man, research shows,” 11-12.
  • Hall, E. T. The Silent Language (1959). New York: Anchor Books, 1990
  • Harper, J. (2006), The Washington Times, “Men hold key to their wives’ calm”, A10.
  • Harper, R. G., Wiens, A. N. and Matarazzo J. D. Nonverbal communication: The State of the Art. Wiley Series on Personality Processes (1978). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Hayward V, Astley OR, Cruz-Hernandez M, Grant D, Robles-De-La-Torre G. Haptic interfaces and devices. Sensor Review 24(1), pp. 16–29 (2004).
  • Holden, R. (1993). How to utilize the power of laughter, humour and a winning smile at work. Employee Counseling Today, 5, 17-21.
  • Jandt, F. E. Intercultural Communication (1995). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Ashley Montagu: Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, Harper Paperbacks, 1986
  • Robles-De-La-Torre G. & Hayward V. Force Can Overcome Object Geometry In the perception of Shape Through Active Touch. Nature 412 (6845):445-8 (2001).
  • Robles-De-La-Torre G. The Importance of the Sense of Touch in Virtual and Real Environments. IEEE Multimedia 13(3), Special issue on Haptic User Interfaces for Multimedia Systems, pp. 24–30 (2006).
  • Van Swol, L. (2003). The effects of nonverbal mirroring on perceived persuasiveness, agreement with an imitator, and reciprocity in a group discussion. Communication Research, 30(4), 20.

Suggested reading[edit]

  • Burgoon, J. K. (1993). Nonverbal signals. In M. L. Knapp, & G. R. Miller (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication (2nd. ed., pp. 229–285). Sage.
  • Burgoon, J. K. & Buller, D.B and Woodall, W.G. (1996). Nonverbal communications: The unspoken dialogue (Second edition). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-008995-7.
  • DePaulo, B. M., & Friedman, H. S. (1998). Nonverbal communication. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology. (4th Edition, Vol. 2, pp. 3–40). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  • Guerrero, L.K., DeVito, J.A., & Hecht, M.L. (Eds) (1999). The nonverbal communication reader: Classic and contemporary reading. (2nd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland. ISBN 1-57766-040-4.
  • Hertenstein, M.J. (2002). Touch: Its communicative functions in infancy. Human Development, 45, 70-94.
  • Hickson III, M. L. and Stacks, D. W. (2001). Nonverbal Communication: Studies and applications (4th edition). Roxbury Publishing Company. ISBN 1-891487-20-5
  • Leathers, D. (1997). Successful nonverbal communication: Principles and applications. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0-205-26230-9
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-445-6.

External links[edit]