Fifty years ago, Edward T. Hall, then of Illinois Institute of Technology, identified differences in interpersonal space ranging from intimate to personal to social to public, and inspired examination of acceptable interpersonal distance across cultures, genders, and organizations.
A decade later, Chris Kleinke, then of Wheaton College, expanded Hall’s work on “proxemics” as he explored the impact of close contact in public spaces, particularly non-intimate touching.
He found that in a relatively low-touch culture like the U.S., directing gaze and touch toward others increased their compliance with ambiguous requests in laboratory experiments.
Since then, this finding has been incorporated in sales, learning, healthcare, and other service settings based on evidence that touch increased performance when applied after a person initially agreed to a request, in research by Oakland University Jane C. Nannberg and Christine H. Hansen.
“Dosage” of touch had an additive effect when University of Paris’ David Vaidis and Severine Halimi-Falkowicz of University of Provence found that people who were touched two times persisted in lengthy tasks more than people who were touched once.
Likewise, University of Missouri’s Frank N. Willis and Helen K. Hamm found that touch contributed to compliance with challenging requests, especially in gaining agreement from people of the same gender as the requestor.
Another demonstration of influential touch was when female restaurant servers briefly touched customers on the hand or the shoulder while returning change from the bill payment.
These customers’ reactions were compared with other patrons who were not touched by the servers, in research by University of Mississippi‘s April H. Crusco and Christopher G. Wetzel of Rhodes College.
They evaluated customers’ reactions to service, food, setting, and other elements of the dining experience with a restaurant survey as well as the gratuity amount, expressed as a percentage of the bill.
Customers who were touched on the hand or shoulder gave the server significantly larger gratuities than those who were not touched, and there was no significant difference between tips from customers who had been touched on the hand or the shoulder.
These findings confirm the influence of interpersonal touch in public commercial settings, and offer a reminder that non-intimate touching can increase cooperation and commitment to complete lengthy or challenging tasks.
-*How have you used interpersonal touch in public work situations to enable cooperation and performance?
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