The Power of Touch

We all know that workplace harassment is unacceptable, but what happens when it is covert and deceptive?

We all speak the language of touch, even if we aren’t necessarily conscious of it. In fact, only about 7 percent of communication is verbal, whereas up to 55 percent is delivered via nonverbal behavior (including tactile methods). 

The simple act of touch evokes emotion, regardless of intent. It can be innocent, such as holding a loved one, accidental, such as a stranger accidentally bumping our arm on the subway, or deceptive, with harmful intent.

While extensive research on verbal communication exists, nonverbal research on tactile communication is in its infant stages. 

Current findings show that compassion is communicated via touch cross-culturally, but research also demonstrates that touch can be used for domination, persuasion and create harm. 

To make things a bit more complicated, touch varies across culture, where a particular gesture may be appropriate and positive in one culture and disrespectful in another. 

Therefore, it is imperative to investigate further what happens when we use touch to communicate, especially in the workplace.

👉 The Biology of Touch 👈

Scientists have discovered a system of afferent nerves, called C-tactile (CT) nerve afferents, that preferentially respond to slow, gentle touch. These nerves bring sensory information from various parts of the body back to the central nervous system (CNS).

There is evidence that suggests slow and gentle touch communicates love and intimacy. Therefore, it’s believed that CT nerve activation (tactile activation) helps us express these emotions more than any other form of nonverbal behavior.

C-tactile (CT) nerve afferents,

Springer New York

The science shows that touch triggers the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion, which correlates with a release of oxytocin and dopamine, helping us create and maintain social bonds that are vital to our survival. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, studies have demonstrated that a lack of touch, especially during our developmental years, can lead to depression and low self-esteem in adulthood.

With that said, not all touch is welcomed, and discernment is critical, especially when out in the world or workplace. 

🤨 Covert Dominance 🤨

Do people use touch for personal gain? Of course.

Many people are conscious of touch and will try to manipulate the positive feelings and emotions that arise from touch to increase their status in a competitive environment. Nancy Henley found in her research that an individual in power is more likely to touch a subordinate, but the subordinate is not free to touch is reciprocal.

The power imbalance between superior and subordinate can easily lead to confusion about whether the touch is motivated by dominance or intimacy. In general, research has shown that men tend to touch more than women, often to control or dominate subtly. This applies to other men, as well as women.

While touch may be an integral facet of communication, most of us wouldn't go up to a stranger and invade their space by touching them because touch is built on some degree of trust and familiarity.

When touch is welcomed, it is often soothing and creates a feeling of safety.

When it's not welcome, touching can elicit feelings of shame, disgust, and confusion, which is why many find it challenging to report feeling dominated or sexually harassed by a co-worker.

In general, most cases of sexual harassment in the workplace occur between a superior and a subordinate, so it's essential to understand the types of leadership that can encourage this type of behavior.

The Veil of Prestige

Leadership in the workplace can be categorized into two domains, prestige and dominant.

Prestige-based leadership refers to the demonstration of knowledge and expertise that earns respect naturally. It is often favored in societies where positive communal behaviors (i.e., warmth, care, prosociality) are preferred and awarded with social benefits.

Dominant-based leadership incorporates the use of aggression and intimidation to create fear and force respect. This is common in the business world because extensive financial rewards can be gained irrespective of performance.

Sexual Harassment Comic

Most are aware that overt sexual harassment is socially unacceptable (regardless of its presence still being a significant issue in many companies) and that extensive laws prohibit it in the workplace.

But what about subtler forms of physical harassment and aggression?

The types of "friendly" touch are often excused as "accidental" or "unintentional." There is a reason why intent isn't mentioned in the definition of sexual harassment. Intent is very difficult to prove. 

Only the person who is the alleged perpetrator can verify intent, thus creating a situation where they can veto whether it was inappropriate or not. In addition, intent may also not be accurately verbalized or reflected in a verbal statement.

Danger seems to lie when a person in a position of power obtains the recognition of prestige while still utilizing subtle touch tactics to dominate. 

Thus, displaying physical dominance under a veil of communal prestige and friendliness. 

In general, these types of interaction are more commonly found among men. For example, a hard slap on the back and a smile or a friendly handshake that is painful.

For women, dominance is typically exhibited via social aggression including nonverbal behaviors like harming friendships and someone’s social status via social exclusion and manipulation.

Cultural Differences

If touch is a language, we are only beginning to understand how important it is to respect our unique differences. In the same way there is diversity in verbal language, there is also diversity in tactile communication.

Across the world, cultures can be defined across a spectrum of contact or no contact with certain cultures more comfortable with physical contact than others.

Countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia would fall into the category of low contact cultures. In contrast, countries such as France and Brazil would be considered high contact cultures.

Men hugging with quote saying "I miss handshakes."

A study with Japanese and British participants demonstrated that touching a stranger was acceptable only on the hand and individuals with an emotional bond were allowed to touch larger bodily areas. 

This finding suggests that social touch for bonding may serve a similar function within East Asian and European cultures and is not strictly culture-based. However, in the same study, a cultural difference did arise in the pleasure derived from touch. 

The Japanese participants reported the overall pleasantness of being touched to be lower than the British did, although both cultures showed similar changes in emotional bond among different individuals. 

We are still discovering the meaning behind these differences in contact comfortability, and one theory suggests that a high risk of infections can indicate higher conservatism which makes sense considering the trauma imprint caused by historical infection outbreaks and the relationship to contact/non-contact culture, especially as we study the societal changes created after COVID-19.

Nonverbal communication is an elaborate secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.

Edward Sapir

Taking Action

Research reports that workplace sexual harassment has negative consequences such as decreased job satisfaction, long-term sickness absence, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. For this reason, along with the moral implications, addressing issues of harassment in the workplace is essential for business leaders.

Psychologist John Pryor constructed the Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale (LSHS) using common stereotypes about men in power situations. Using this scale in his research, he found that those who are more likely to harass possess a psychological underpinning that justifies their behavior sexually. For example, the idea that women make false complaints because "they were asking for it."

🔥 Steps to Take 🔥

If you find yourself to be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, consider doing the following:

1. Inform the person that you will file a formal complaint if their inappropriate behavior does not cease. Addressing the first instance of harassment is vital to prevent misinterpretation of a reaction to inappropriate touching.

2. Create written accounts of each instance and gather physical evidence.

3. Contact a legal profession to provide advice on your options to pursue action.

4. Make a formal report to your Human Resources Department.

5. File a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) if your employer refuses to investigate your claim.

The only alternative to a shuddering paralysis is to leap into action regardless of the consequences.

Alan Watts


Our words are only a fraction of what we intend to communicate to others. 

Understanding how touch affects us and those around us is critical because it directly relates to our awareness of respecting personal space. 

While touch can bring up feelings of compassion and build intimate relationships, it can also strip us of our dignity and evoke shame. 

If it doesn't feel good, take action!


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Sometimes I don't read too much into it (as a receiver) especially when its someone from a different culture, unless I feel it is totally inappropriate that crosses the line of what clearly is harassment (fondling, groping). I mean that should encompass all cultures, unless I could be wrong (and I would be curious to know what cultures make this seem a good thing for acquaintances). I do respect cultural differences though so I would probably brush up a bit on some basic cultural knowledge if I am aware beforehand I would be meeting said person, especially when it comes to a business meeting.

It was interesting to read this article because I actually had a conversation with one of my cousins a couple weeks ago about how some people are just very open and think nothing of it to hug everybody. We both struggle with being very hands-on in relationships, so for example I’m not the type to just hug everybody goodbye and some of my family members hug when they see each other and hug before they leave. When I get hugged it makes me feel like a straight log standing there while they hug me. So even with close family I really don’t like it whenever it’s time for touching or hugging.

So I could only imagine how uncomfortable I would feel if it was a coworker who came around and tryed to sit close to me at my desk or try to give me a hug when they were leaving so I also think it also depends on not just a culture but the person. Some people are really hands-on and then other people with the same upbringing might just feel very uncomfortable so I think that’s also something to consider to. Also for some people with special needs it could be a trigger if you were to touch them just a light touch or a hard touch could be a trigger for them so it’s something to consider as well.

Some people need a soft touch, others a firm handshake. The strength and duration of touch can affect how we're perceived as well as the level of comfort we feel in a given social situation. As with any language, there are rules when it comes to touching but not everyone speaks the same language so no one knows when they have violated those rules.

This is absolutely true!! A particular gesture may be appropriate and positive in one culture and disrespectful in another. I always try and respect that especially during today's time. Seems like we have even lost the simple handshake and it has been replaced with the fist bump. I remember back in my single days and having a first date and it was very obvious when there was a connection by just a simple touch on the leg or arm during a conversation. It is a very subtle way of showing that there is an interest.

It’s true that touch is perceived very differently across cultures.  In America, greeting another acquaintance from America with a kiss on the cheek or a hug could make the other person stiffen up.  However, if the person is from say Spain, or France, it’s totally normal.  It really does boil down to who you’re interacting with, and where.  I have a lot of Spaniard friends, and it’s customary to greet with a kiss on the cheek, and a hug regardless of how close.  With my American friends, I only do a hug/kiss if I’m really close to them.  In the workplace, touches on the shoulder, arm, legs etc can get really uncomfortable if it’s your superior doing the touching. This is an American point of view.  I had a friend who worked in France however, and it was totally normal to give ‘la base” to coworkers or new acquaintances for greetings.