'Physical contact map' might make you think twice about that hug

Oct 28, 2015 at 9:05 a.m. ET
Image: Susan Chiang/E+/Getty Images

Do we really need an infographic to show us what's socially acceptable? Apparently we do — and Oxford University has kindly provided an easy reference point for those tricky physical contact dilemmas.

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Physical contact map
Image: PNAS

We're not talking about getting frisky with your other half in public — that's a whole other study. This is about those times when you don't know whether to shake someone's hand or give them a kiss on the cheek or hug a complete stranger.

Oxford University worked with Aalto University in Finland on the largest ever study on physical contact, and came to the not-so-surprising conclusion that most people don't really want a bear hug from a stranger. (Hand-to-hand contact is fine, though.)

They also found that women are more comfortable with physical contact than men. Again, not much of a surprise. We ladies love a hug, right?

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By talking to over 1,300 men and women in the U.K., Finland, France, Italy and Russia about where they felt comfortable being touched by partners, friends of the same sex, friends of the opposite sex, family members and strangers, the researchers were able to compile a “physical touching map,” which was published in the PNAS journal this week.

What else does it teach us about touching? Men and women alike are more comfortable being touched by their mothers than their fathers. The Finns are the most comfortable with physical contact in general and the Brits the least.

It also found that the bond between two people resulted in a larger permissible "touching area" on the body than the frequency of contact between them. So you're more likely to welcome a touch on the arm from a close friend you haven't seen for a long time than an acquaintance you see on a daily basis.

Now for the most important question: how do you tell that touchy-feely colleague that you really, really aren't into having your head patted every time she passes your desk?

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