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The Power Of Touch - When Words Just Aren't Enough

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I had lunch with a friend a while ago and he introduced me to his fiancé’ – who I’d heard much about – so I felt like I should hug her. After we hugged, she said “Oh, you’re one of those people that really knows how to hug.” I’m not sure it was a compliment, but at least she said it in a way that told me I didn’t come across creepy.

I think there is tremendous power in someone’s touch – good and bad. Most people can tell the difference between physical contact that’s positive and that which is inappropriate. I’m only going to comment on the positive because frankly, the opposite is much more intense and I don’t have enough post-graduate degrees to deal with that kind of depravity.

In my previous career running a golf facility we were known for a high level of customer service. We made real connections with people and developed relationships that still endure today. We talked about handshakes, hugs, high fives, and pats on backs as a way to foster meaningful interactions with guests. Our operation was in Nashville, TN, but a big portion of our patrons were from out of town. Those outside of the southeast seemed to view our approach as some version of southern hospitality and were accepting whether they were accustomed to it or not.

Speaking of geography, I’ve noticed that people from certain parts of the US are more approving of physical contact than others. I went to college in Nashville but all parts of the country were represented by the student body. I remember being at a party with some friends – all from the New York/New Jersey area. My buddy Pete and I were having a large time and throughout the evening I grabbed his arm or semi-shoved him when something funny was said or happened. Then, a popular song started blasting through the speakers in the room and I grabbed his shoulders from behind and shook him as if to say “Isn’t this song great?!?”

I guess Pete had finally had enough because he turned around and shouted “WOULD YOU QUIT F***ING TOUCHING ME?!? I don’t know what’s up with you guys down here in the south, but where I’m from we don’t touch each other so damn much! You’re a good dude and everything, but just stop with the f***ing touching!” I said, “Uhh … you got it Pete.”

Pete clearly didn’t appreciate my physical brand of communication – and he probably wouldn’t be a big fan of my approach to customer service – but I believe most people feel a greater connection with someone through human touch. And before you start going down an alternate road in your mind, this has nothing to do with Jack and Jill “fetching a pail of water” on that hill. I also feel like I can hear many of you singing that Joan Jett song … so stop it. This is contact that is modest, genuine, heartfelt, and often needed.

So much of what I write and speak about is my desire to impact others in a more positive way. As I get older, I feel a real deficiency in this world when it comes to compassion and empathy. Do I think we’re going to solve everything by “hugging it out” or holding hands? Probably not. But I’ll bet you’ve had times in your life when someone reached out to you in a way that was just what you needed at that particular moment.

When I was managing a business, I talked to our employees about reading situations with our customers; identifying a need; and taking care of that need. I see no reason why we can’t use touch to do the same thing in our personal lives – you just need to pay attention to the moment and act when it seems appropriate. You can’t just run around getting all touchy-feely with everyone you see. There are rules. There are people who are uncomfortable with it, even from those they know and love. They don’t seem to be wired to need as much physical contact as others. This is where you have to read the situation – or risk getting punched by Pete.

I found tons of articles proclaiming how important touch is in our lives – from the time we’re babies until the time we die. We strengthen our connections with others through contact, during joyous times and difficult times. I’ve hugged many people I’ve never met after my favorite basketball team made a 3-pointer to win the game. I’ve also hugged many I’ve never met at funerals for friends or loved ones. Somehow the moment means more when we connect physically.

Every day I drive by the elementary school my daughters attended when they were young. I can still picture walking them down the street to the crossing guard while we held hands. I made them promise to always hold my hand when I asked them – no matter how old they got. They still do … and it makes my heart smile.

Think of all the situations you witness every day that could be improved by a literal helping hand. Is it the elderly person that needs assistance getting up the stairs? How about the person going through a difficult time that could use a hug? Maybe it’s the stranger in the hospital that needs a hand on their arm as they wait to see what the test results say.

From Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in her book The Blind Assassin: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”

Sometimes words can’t express what we want someone else to know.

Sometimes touch is the way to say what really needs to be said.



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