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Handle with care

28 March 2013

The question of human touch is fraught with difficulty, and open to conflicting interpretations. But it would be a shame if we became a 'hands-off' society, says Ted Harrison


THE Easter and Holy Week story starts with an unwelcome kiss, and ends with a tearful woman, yearning for a comforting hug, being told not to touch the man she adores. Even in the Bible, touch is a confusing subject.

The circumstances in which it is judged right or wrong to touch another person, and in what way, is currently much debated - especially when the touch is deemed "inappropriate". People often live in close social groups, and physical contact is inevitable. Yet individuals also value their personal space and integrity. Societies therefore develop rules to keep a balance.

Viewed from outside, these rules might seem strange. I recall, when young, watching flickering television pictures of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin being greeted by the Soviet leaders on his return from space - not with a manly hand-shake, but with bear hugs and kisses. Very odd, I thought.

Today, contrasting cultures frequently live side-by-side, and cross-cultural contacts must be conducted with care. I was politely reminded when visiting a London mosque not to greet women with a handshake. What was to me a normal friendly gesture might have been construed as disrespectful.

Not only does the etiquette of touch vary between cultures, within a single cultural setting it has inconsistencies.

In Britain, the way we touch each other depends on such variables as gender, circumstance, relationship, and age. The unwritten rules are complicated. It is acceptable, even expected, to admire a newborn baby through touch. We grow up, however, learning how to limit the way we touch others, until, in old age, we may have to submit ourselves again to the touch of strangers who are caring for our intimate personal needs.

In the workplace, despite close teamwork being encouraged, physical expressions of bonding are normally outlawed, lest they be misinterpreted. In the wrong circumstances, even touching a colleague's arm might be construed as harassment. Yet, on their way to work, stacked together on the commuter- train, the same office workers are subjected to some of the closest encounters they are ever likely to experience, with total strangers.

The etiquette of touch also evolves over time. Generally, the British today are more "touchy-feely" than a generation ago. Greeting an acquaintance of the opposite sex with a kiss is now commonplace, whereas it was once exotically continental. Simultaneously, however, hands-on professionals, such as teachers and medical practitioners, have become increasingly cautious about touch. The accusation of "inappropriate" behaviour hovers in the professional background, and what is "appropriate" becomes harder to establish.

Confusingly, different expectations are laid on men and women. A male priest may need to be more cautious than a woman priest in how he touches those in his pastoral care.

Inappropriate touch is frequently associated with abuses of power, and high-profile cases have involved priests, politicians, and media presenters. Quite rightly, many who abused that power, even if years ago, are now having to face up to the consequences of their misdeeds.

Nevertheless, it would be sad if we become so suspicious of touch, and so over-cautious in our response to it, that we evolve into an entirely "hands-off" and "arm's-length" society.

Undoubtedly, some people find it difficult to give or interpret social signals. Practised abusers create a false sense of trust. Certainly, the authority figure who engineers an inappropriate encounter for his or her own sexual gratification is indulging in sinful, often criminal, behaviour.

Yet employing touch, in a pastoral setting, can be acceptable: to hold the hand of someone who is distressed, to hug a sobbing child, feels instinctively the right thing to do.

The story of Holy Week and Easter illustrates how the rightness or wrongness of touch lies not so much in the deed as in the motive, or perceived motive, of the initiator. The quality of human touch is determined by intent.

It begins with Judas's embracing his master as an intentional act of betrayal; it records the cruel physical contact of the Roman soldiers intending to inflict pain; and, in one legend, we find St Veronica wanting to ease Christ's suffering by wiping his face with her veil.

Jesus himself was tactile. He washed the disciples' feet, and within the Christian tradition touch is sacramentalised. The prayerful laying on of hands is an act of healing. Confirmation and ordination are performed through touch, as are baptism and anointing.

Touch can have not simply a benign, but a positive, effect. In nature, animals groom each other as acts of friendship. Touch does not have to have a sexual connotation; it is not solely about self-gratification.

Many languages acknowledge touch as an act of generosity: for instance, when we give someone a hug. Touch can also be employed to communicate. The restraining hand, or the pat on the back, conveys a message. In this way, touch, when offered without selfish motive, is essentially good. It is an expression of love. Sometimes, it is all that is left to offer when words fail.

Touch can enhance love, but touch is not a prerequisite of love. Exactly what the risen Christ meant when he said, "Do not touch me" to Mary Magdalene is unclear, but we can be sure of one thing. He was not saying "I no longer love you."

One of the many meanings behind that mysterious Easter-morning story is that even when it is not possible for two people to touch, for whatever reason, the love between them is undiminished.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

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