Expression of Affection Through Touch Across Cultures
Do people all over the world kiss their partners and hug their friends? Is it common to stroke children? Presumably, culture influences our touch behaviors but how? And if there are differences between cultures, why do these exist?
It has been hard to answer all these questions based on scarce and sometimes contrasting evidence. Aiming to explore the global differences and similarities in expression of affection through interpersonal touch, we asked over 14,000 adults from 45 countries whether they embraced, stroked, kissed, or hugged their partner, friends, and youngest child (if they had children) during the preceding week.
We found that all over the world, embracing, stroking, kissing, and hugging were reported most often in relationships with partners and children—strikingly, we observed this pattern in countries that are as diverse and distant from one another as Spain, Sweden, Australia, Russia, and South Korea, among others. Although friends were often hugged and embraced, they were rather seldom stroked or kissed. Simply speaking, diverse and intimate touch seems to be universally more important in the closest, personal relationships. This comes as no surprise when one thinks about all the benefits of positive touch—it promotes well-being, strengthens romantic relationships, increases bonding between parents and offspring, and can even enhance the growth of an infant brain! Still, we were impressed that people use these kinds of touch to foster partnership and parenting all over the world.
This universality of affectionate touch strongly points to a biological or evolutionary foundation for its importance for establishing and maintaining close relationships.
Nevertheless, the amount of affectionate touch did differ in interesting ways between countries. For example, in Italy, Estonia, Romania, Spain, and Mexico only about 2% of the participants declared not touching their partner at all during the week preceding our study, while in the U.S. it was almost 16%, in Uganda more than 20%, and in China 43% of all people who took part in our research! Many of our outcomes fit with the classical “contact vs. non-contact culture” distinction proposed by the anthropologist E. T. Hall and previous research suggesting differences in preferred interpersonal physical distance between cultures.
The next challenge was to explore the many other individual and cultural factors that we measured, hoping some might explain some of this cross-cultural diversity. To grasp the touch diversity for each individual we counted how many touch types every person used—no touch at all? one, two, three or four types of affectionate touch? Further, we averaged the responses within cultures/countries so that we could make a statement about whole groups, not just the individual people.
Where is the Diversity of Touch Greatest? And Why?
People used more types of affectionate touch in warmer, less conservative, and less religious countries, and among younger, female, and liberal people. Can we explain why touch can be less restricted in some places?
Explaining cultural differences has to be speculative, but we can make some good guesses. The positive link between temperature and touch diversity may be because warmer climate and pleasant weather lead to increased frequency of interpersonal interactions, promote interpersonal trust, and thereby facilitate the formation of closer social networks.
We can also speculate on our findings associating conservatism and religiosity with decreased expression of affection with the use of touch. People, or groups, must adapt to environmental challenges in order to survive and reproduce. One example would be how much a society is burdened with the likelihood of different infectious diseases. Research has consistently shown that high, local risk of infections predicts higher conservatism, religiosity, and disgust sensitivity. Consequently, it is likely that in our evolutionary past also a more careful approach to bodily contact between individuals emerged in places burdened with high infection risk. Transfer of these values from our ancestors has probably happened through imprinting, inheritance, and adherence to stricter family values in such cultures.
As for the individual factors shaping touch diversity, our data again confirmed that touch is crucial for creating and strengthening social bonds. Therefore, its behavioral expression can be the richest among people for whom bonding and physical contact are the most important, namely young women and people with smaller interpersonal distance preferences.
In conclusion, cultural values affect our general inclination to use or avoid affectionate touch and modify the diversity of touch behaviors in a range of social relationships. However, individual factors may greatly enhance the expression or restriction of touch behaviors.
For Further Reading
Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246–259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.10.004
Sorokowska, A., Saluja, S., Sorokowski, P., Frąckowiak, T., Karwowski, M., Aavik, T., ... & Croy, I. (2021). Affective interpersonal touch in close relationships: A cross-cultural perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220988373
Suvilehto, J. T., Glerean, E., Dunbar, R. I., Hari, R., & Nummenmaa, L. (2015). Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(45), 13811-13816. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1519231112
Agnieszka Sorokowska is an Associate Professor at the University of Wroclaw, Poland. Her research interests include cross-cultural, sensory, and social psychology.