body language: meaning of touch

August 31, 2010

Jones and Yarbrough (1985) say that touch can communicate different meanings:

  • positive emotions: touch can express affection, appreciation, support, trust, and sexual interest. A hug can show affection, for example, or a pat on the back shows support.
  • negative emotions: touch can express negative feelings, e.g., by slapping or hitting.
  • playfulness: touch can let others know that what we just said is not to be taken seriously and can de-escalate situations. Examples are playful wrestling and tickling.
  • control: touch can direct other people’s attention or behavior and communicate status and dominance. For example, the boss guides the subordinate to the door with a hand on his back, telling him that the meeting is over.
  • ritual: touch also has a ritual function when greeting people or saying good-bye, for example shaking hands or hugging. I’ll blog about types of handshakes and hugs in the future.
  • task-related: task-related touches include physicians examining a patient, but also a cashier touching a customer’s palm when handing back money.
  • accidental touch: this includes unintentional brushes in elevators or public transportation. Usually, accidental touches are ignored by both people.

My next blog posts will look at gender differences and cultural differences when it comes to touching.



  1. I have thoroughly enjoyed all your posts relating to the subject of body language. Thank you for taking the time to put together these posts and for sharing.

    • You’re welcome. It’s interesting to put into words what I use without thinking much about it every day.

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