Thursday, April 23, 2009

Touching Me, Touching You

The typical American upbringing does not involve much touching between friends. Not my generation. Some families may be a little more touchy-feely, but Americans by and large like their personal space. We hug each other on special occasions. Sometimes upon hello and goodbye. When we give or receive gifts. In everyday life? In our daily hanging out on the couch or walking down the street, we don't touch each other. There is no kissing on the cheek or any other "invasion" of personal space.

My Korean students used to laugh at me and my discomfort at people in my space. In the generation in which they were raised, best friends hold hands. They walk holding hands, curl up next to each other when doing homework or having a snack. Once, a pair of my Korean girls flanked me, grabbed my hands, entwined their arms around mine and walked me to class. I laughed at their forwardness, they good-naturedly laughed at my discomfort.

My Korean students cracked open the door. Several of my Swedish colleagues kicked it off the hinges.

While Swedes tend to be a bit stoic, a few of my teaching coworkers were definite children of the 60s and 70s. Artsy fartsy, as some would say. We'd be at a crowded party. With all of us jammed onto a crappy little sofa our legs, arms and hips would touch while sitting on a couch. (Gasp!) Something emotional would happen at work, and my colleague would lean her head on my shoulder.

Initially, I was kind of creeped out. It was hard not to flinch and take a step back to add that comfortable buffer. What the hell was up with these people? I thought I was in the land of the Icy Norsemen? I must have been in some strange microcosm. The more my friends included me in these gestures of friendship, the faster my barriers came down. It felt comfortable. Like I belonged. The power of human touch is amazing. Dropping that emotional guard and letting someone touch you is freeing. Until a friendship or cultural experience comes along such as this, you are not so acutely aware of the lack of touch in our lives. That absence of touch.

Today was my first day back dropping the kids off at school. Outside LittleBird's classroom, I turned and was embraced by one of the moms I have gotten to know fairly well. It was a full body contact hug. She held me tightly, asking how I was hanging in there. When we parted, she continued to hold my hands. I have quite a few years distance from my time in Sweden and my days teaching Asian students. I could feel my heart in my throat. That familiar stress of needing to yank my hands away. I haven't been touched by a friend in a really long time. In those few short breaths where she wouldn't let me go, I struggled. I could feel how much I missed having a friend I could literally lean on. I could feel how much I have reverted to my old American-style ways.

We are getting our kids together for a playdate tomorrow. I doubt there will be much hugging or hand-holding going on. We'll make some iced tea, and I'll fill her in on the sordid details of the past week. I'll probably cry a little. I'm glad I've been reminded of my past progress trusting certain people with my personal space. I miss it, and whether or not this friendship develops that kind of trust I am glad of the reminder.

12 comments:

Kat said...

Interesting... Never thought much about it. I'm VERy touchy-kissie-huggy with my close friends, but there's definitely little touching that goes on otherwise. Yesterday I ran into a friend of my husband's - good guy, really friendly and I like him a lot, but he kept touching me and I wondered at first if he was being sleazy... but no. And then I felt stupid for wondering, but it's just what I'm used to!

SSG said...

You know, I found the opposite. Being British, I wondered why people in the US and Canada (though the east coast of both only i've really been too) had smaller "personal spaces" than I did. No-one thought it rude to reach past me to get something, or to brush my arm or body to move past, or to give a hug or handshake or high five. I grew up somewhere where you just don't do the touching thing, and no I have friends from the continent, and its also the fashion in the south of England, it's taken me a while to get used to kissing people hello and goodbye. Still the thought of it sometimes- yuck- all these people's saliva on your chops! yuck!

Joe said...

Uhm, I'm a dude. The handbook says that guys are only allowed to hug if it's the handshake/hug. It's where you shake hands, pull close and give one back slap (MAYBE two).

You're "Artsy Fartsy" comment reminded me of a joke by Greg Hahn recently:

"My girlfriend loves Picasso and Mexican food. She's very artsy fartsy."

RIMSHOT!

tysdaddy said...

Like Joe, I'm a dude. But I'm much more sentimental, and more touchy-feely, than most dudes. I like a good hug . . .

Sorry to hear about your laptop. I'm hopeful that the weekend will be kind to you . . .

Tuli said...

My life lacks human touch. I've tried to change that - to turn into the person who initiates a friendly touch - with little success. I'll keep trying, though, as it's that important.

Gypsy said...

When I was doing study abroad in Italy, one of my roommates -- an American -- was way more touchy than I'd had experience with (and not in a sexual way). At first it really bothered me. REALLY. But eventually I began to see the value and comfort in that physical closeness.

Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

Oh. The next time we're hanging? I'm sooooooo full-body hugging you. And then? I might just smooch you on both cheeks.

Hee hee! :)

A Free Man said...

I still maintain my American personal space issues. I just don't like to be touched by people I don't know very well. A firm handshake - OK, beyond that? Back off.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

@Kat: I hear ya on that. When you aren't used to a touchy-feely person it is easy to over-analyze.

@SSG: That's why you have to do the cheek to cheek air kiss. No saliva involved.

@Joe: Three back slaps is considered over the line, eh? Good to know. And funny joke, btw. I totally chuckled.

@tysdaddy: The laptop is in recovery. Am compulsively running all kinds of debugging programs on it and finding a few things here and there. What I really need it help cleaning out my processes. Too much shit going on in the background.

@Tuli: I understand your frustration. Hang in there. It will definitely pay off.

@Gypsy: Do you find you miss it now that you are back in the States? Or are you just relieved to have your personal space back again?

@CMGD: I'm cool with that as long as I am not wearing a paper gown.

@AFM: Back off, or you might sic Timmins on them.

Patois said...

Not a toucher by nature. But I could see losing myself in that gesture of support.

Krishanna said...

Hmmmm... I am not very touchy-feely until I know you and even then I'll hug yu hello and goodbye... or maybe rub your shoulder if you are upset or find you a tissue. Mostly, I miss having a woman friend of a like-mind close by. Manthing is my best friend but he doesn't like craft or fabric stores or gossip.. ;)

Blues said...

I deal with this a lot and have to control my instincts to back up and pull my hands away. Great post.