What will social distancing mean for our need for touch?

A year ago I was working as a waitress in a well-established pub in Guildford, Surrey. We had our regulars, jackasses, customers we knew would tip well, one’s we knew wouldn’t leave until we had to  kick them out long after last orders were called. 

Being a waitress for a year & a half taught me a lot about how people communicate, and how they like to be communicated to. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat the wait staff. 

For example, some would like to compliment your service but refuse to tip. Acknowledgement was their good deed, they wanted you to know they recognised good work. They just didn’t want to exchange their hard-earned money for your hard-earned service. Communication was their chosen method of exchange. 

Six months later, my fledgling massage business began to thrive and I left the world of hospitality for the health & wellness industry. Again, I learnt a lot about how people liked to communicate. 

Some people got on the massage bed and didn’t want to say a word. Silence was their solitude. Others couldn’t relax UNTIL they had talked all their troubles away. Others held their tension in their body that spoke volumes about what was going on in their lives in a way I’m sure they weren’t aware of. As a massage therapist I learnt the language of the body intimately. 

It got me thinking. 

Touch is our first universal language. Before there are words, numbers or an understanding of body language, there is touch. 

As Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine said, “Touch might have a more immediate impact than words, because it is physical and leads to a chain of bioelectric and chemical changes that basically relax the nervous system.”

And now, we are denied the right to touch for the safety of society as a whole. 

Social distancing measures feel strange. Crossing the road to avoid the person coming towards you to protect them doesn’t feel natural. Because even those of us who like our alone time like to be around others. It’s wired into our primitive brain to crave the touch of our tribe. To know we are held, supported, loved…especially in times of distress.

I feel sorry for those isolating by themselves right now. To be deprived of touch is akin to being deprived of love & connection. Video calls & zoom parties only go so far. 

I understand the importance of the social distancing measures, and I’m not saying they aren’t appropriate. I’m saying they’ll have knock-on effects not only for our economy, but for our biology too. 

How will we replace the need for touch until it is safe again to do so? Will we become more open in our conversations? Will we rely on activities that activate our senses? (We’ve already seen this happening in lockdown.) Will we develop a new way to communicate through touch? 

Only time will tell. We are resilient creatures, us humans. 

We’ve adapted languages for thousands of years. 

I hope touch doesn’t become one we lose altogether.