The Vernacular of Touch

I was at a gallery opening a few months ago, serving wine at the bar. The gallery was a non-profit and so there was a requested donation for the alcohol. One of the guests became very angry about this and responded aggressively. The gallery director came up and placed her hand on his shoulder to get his attention, and he yelled: “How Blue Collar of you to think you can touch me!” That comment stuck with me. Clearly, he was overreacting (and odd), but it is true that touch is a very specific type of communication. I do not want the scary homeless dude on the street to manhandle me. Nor do I want the perfectly normal-looking guy sitting next to me on the bus to accidentally graze me. There are people that I want to touch, who definitely would not want me to touch them. And vice versa.

Understanding the Etiquette of Touch

There is a complicated and layered etiquette to touch. There are people we allow to touch us (and, by extension, our property), and people we do not. There are contexts when we want to allow someone to touch us in a specific way, and contexts when that same touch is completely inappropriate. There are different places and ways I want to be touched by the people I allow to do so. My mom and my husband, for example, have drastically different touch targets.

The location of the touch plays a large role in its meaning. Consider a pat on the back versus a pat on the arm versus a pat on the cheek. These all communicate something different. The gesture has a connotation that stands alone from our interpretation: encouraging versus consoling versus condescending. Layer on top of the gesture our perception of it and the touch source. And there are obviously different times within each touch interaction when being touched in a certain way would be, or would not be appropriate. A deep kiss in church is appropriate in a wedding ceremony but decidedly inappropriate during regular Sunday mass.

The same touch etiquette is not followed around the world. For example, in France, they kiss cheeks but in Japan, not so much. In the U.S., we need at least two feet of personal space (or more, please) while the Chinese could care less. While handshakes are becoming more universal, touch is so nuanced that even the strength of one’s grip impacts the meaning of the handshake across cultures. According to Ms. Emily Post, in the Middle East, “a too-hearty grip could be interpreted as aggressive.”

Contextualizing Touch

Touch, our first language, creates a dialogue with the world through a medium that is intimately familiar. As infants, we begin processing and exploring our world physically, with our bodies, hands, mouths. Throughout our life, that physical communication continues to be an essential need, a way of experiencing. About ninety percent of communication is nonverbal, and the physical part often conveys what words cannot. Indeed, touch says something specific, and usually, that meaning is clear with context. Context itself is nuanced, though. This puts us in at an interesting crossroad as we begin to interact with technology in a more immediate, intimate, and tactile manner.

The quality of a touch from different sources provides different meanings. A light graze by my husband feels very different from a light graze from my boss. Sometimes I grab my niece firmly around the wrist to stop her, while other times I lightly hold her wrist to guide her. Timing is essential to the touch conversation. Timing allows us to be able to change the quality of our message to suite the context. We also need to be able to decode meaning when a touch is out of context. Touch in different areas of the body have very different meanings as well. If my mom were suddenly “touch” me through my phone I carry in my front pocket, I would become very uncomfortable.

Rendering Touch

How does one render the feeling of touch in digital space and devices? How specific does it need to be? Neo Rauch, a modern surrealist painter, says he leaves areas of his paintings murky and un-rendered because in dreams, there are illusions off in the corner of our perception that we sense in a particular way until we try to examine them up close. It is upon examination when we realize that thing in the periphery is just a mirage. But, before we realize that, our brain fills in all the details in order to make that which lingers on the edge seem significant.

That’s exactly when the illusion becomes the most believable: when there is just enough of the narrative for the viewer to put themselves into the story. It would be a folly to try to make the sensation of digital touch too specific. The mind will step in, frame it, and fill in the information to make it personal, to make it a visceral experience of a touch and not a manufactured one.

Phone calls are a great example of this. When I talk face-to-face. I physically experience the action. I can sense the vibration of my conversation partner’s voice in her body. Subconsciously, I feel the sound waves hit my body. I might even feel her voice move the air. But I don’t require all of that to believe that voice over the phone wires is that same person. My brain reenacts the physicality; my brain helps make the phone conversation authentic.

Our brains are funny that way—decoding things we don’t focus on to make sense of the world. We all operate from a unique frame of reference. Our experiences, our culture, our education, and our environment color this frame. Our frame of reference, with its accompanying baggage, shapes our perspective, and filters our experience. And within these frames, the brain creates schemas, discrete folders where we organize and store all the information we take in on a daily basis; these schemas become our mental models of our world. These cataloguing systems are necessary for us to be able to make meaning and experience cognition. I know something hard is inflexible because I have experienced it many times and every time I experience inflexible, I am actually instantaneously accessing all those experiences of hard = inflexible (and the related baggage) in order to understand what that means.

Exploring the Boundaries of Touch

As much as there needs to be just enough detail in the rendering of touch for the brain to fill in, it would be a worthwhile venture to explore deeply the intersection of technology and texture. There are many industries that could benefit from that type of development including manufacturing and textile. If I, as a clothing manufacturer, could actually feel the sample of cloth that is about to be used to make my new dress line on the other side of the globe, that would be of great benefit. This could then feed back to the consumer market because it would define how texture or tactile information could be shared. For example, I could wear a bracelet and whenever my husband wanted to “touch” my hand he could; the inside of the bracelet on my arm communicating the textural map of my wrist to the outside of the bracelet he wears and vice-versa.

Tactile technology could drastically change the shape of how mobile objects work. Maybe the shape of our mobile devices needs to change in order to accommodate a type of sensation. Perhaps it is time for this technology to take on some other metaphor that allows us to touch, and experience, our devices in a whole new way.