I’m a pretty affectionate person. Ask my sons; ask my husband; ask my friends. During my residency training – when I was preparing to become a newly minted clinical psychologist – I was warned by a clinical supervisor that not everyone likes to be touched. At the time I found that quite curious, but okay, I tried to remember that lesson. Even today, as I stand in the reception line at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church where I am Priest Associate, I try to remember that although most seem to want a quick hug, not everyone does. I try to remember that old lesson.
On our recent car trip back from the Poconos, when my husband David was driving, I amused myself … and maybe him … by reading op-ed pieces to him from The New York Times. The title of one by Courtney Maum caught my eye. Under the headline, “Please Touch Me” (see lead photo from that piece), Maum, who is a marketing “futurist” – one who predicts future trends in fad-buying years in advance – reviews current sales crazes. She notes how human-on-human contact these days is fraught with signs of legal peril. Faculty and clergy are warned to keep their doors open when meeting with students or parishioners, how “sexting has replaced the back-seat makeout.” She describes how our “you do you” culture is ripe for do-it-yourself, feel-good marketing options like “hygge blankets all the way to sex-doll brothels. If no one else will touch us, the message seems to be let’s all touch ourselves!” Maum asks “if welcome, spontaneous touch has fallen out of favor, and formerly sexually active citizens are staying home with ‘Game of Thrones’ … isn’t it possible that people could literally forget how to touch another human?”
Maum suggests one obvious solution: Get off your phones. And don’t try substituting online chats and FaceTime interactions. She warns that such devices that substitute for actual, in-the-flesh interactions may lead to decreased fluency in reading social cues and the tendency to consider people as avatars instead of human beings. But she also sees on the horizon some attempts to remedy this absence of real social contact. More and more folks are “going offline.” A company like rentafriend.com apparently has more than 621,000 human companions signed up as available by the hour for company barbecues, class reunions and that all-important category of hot-air balloon rides. One English journalist wonders if we are “living through a crisis of touch,” and apparently The New York Times ran an article recently where the writer suggests that “human contact is now a luxury good.” Near the end of Maum’s article she makes the following observation:
If trend forecasting is, indeed, a game of opposites, then I think we’ll see touch-deprivation check-in spots in public wellness centers where patients can go to be embraced. Executives will enroll in body language clinics where elders teach the nonverbal communication skills that have fallen out of use. Picture a return to “pheromone-based” dating, prolonged eye contact as the new Soul Cycle, skin-hunger regulated as diligently as our Fitbit steps. Hell, maybe ballroom dancing will even make a comeback. … (The New York Times, Sunday, July 20, 2019, Sunday Review section, p. 9. See second photo below.)
I found Maum’s article fascinating and her futurist trends a stark commentary on today’s culture and where we might be headed. But even deeper than what’s going on around our social scene, I think we have to ask the question about what is happening to us as human beings. In my last two books I discuss the nature of human beings and how we are embodied creatures, creating meaning between us in conversations and shared social space. Research findings in the fields of evolutionary neuroscience and psychology make clear that our brains are sculpted and shaped in interaction with the world about us, most especially the social world. In The Fiction of Our Lives, I describe how our brain is what’s referred to as an open-loop system in the social realm. On page 218 I have the following to say:
We are greatly affected emotionally by others’ emotional states. Cells such as mirror neurons cause us to mimic what we see others do – feeling others’ joy so we laugh; seeing others cry and becoming sad. Such cells “link us to each other. They appear to be an essential component of the social brain and an important mechanism of communication across the social synapses.” In fact, Daniel Goleman, in his classic work on emotional intelligence, has gone so far as to say that “failure to register another’s feelings is a major deficit in emotional intelligence, and a tragic failing in what it means to be human.” (Cascade Books, 2016)
Now I don’t want to be a “Chicken Little” about our culture – crying about the sky falling and running for cover. Nor do I – given our political landscape – want to insist that we are going to hell in a handbasket. But we are in trouble, folks! Unless you and I look around and wake up to the current cultural scene, disconnect with our devices, and sit down with a friend over a cup of coffee or glass of Chianti, our own humanness will fade. Unless you look up at your dinner partner, look them in the eyes, talk to them and create some meaning between the two of you rather than sit there and text, then you and I are in deep trouble, dear reader.
So hold hands with a friend – that is, if you don’t mind being touched. And become more human in the process. Please. …