5 Languages Spotlight: Physical Touch

This Thursday, April 19, is National High Five Day, a great opportunity to discuss the most difficult love language to translate into a workplace setting – physical touch.

When we first started investigating how best to apply the love languages to work-oriented relationships, we utilized all five of the languages, even though we knew it would be a challenge to translate the language of touch appropriately. We found that the number and variety of these actions are fairly limited (high fives, fist bumps, congratulatory handshakes, or a pat on the shoulder), but no less important.

Many people ask, “Is there any place for physical touch in the workplace?” This question seems most often asked by those who value physical touch in their personal relationships. We believe there is a role for appropriate touch in work-oriented relationships.

However, the appropriateness of these actions depends on the person, the type of work relationship, and the organizational subculture in which the behavior occurs. Some actions are fine for certain individuals but would make others feel uncomfortable.

All touches are not created equal

The touches that make you feel affirmed may not make another person feel affirmed. An individual’s view of what is appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace may differ greatly from person to person. We must learn from the person we are interacting with what he or she perceives as an affirming touch. While there are non-verbal cues you can watch for – stiffening or withdrawing when touched – the surest way to find out is simply to ask.

Also, there are implicit and explicit touches. Touches that are implicit are subtle, are transitory and are often given without a lot of thought. A pat on the back, a quick handshake, or a high five are examples of implicit touches and are common expressions of physical touch in work settings. Explicit touches normally require more thought and time. An extended handshake while saying to the person, “I really appreciate what you did; I will never forget the effort you poured into this task” may well communicate your appreciation very deeply to the individual who values physical touch.

We have found that implicit types of touch are the most common form of showing appreciation physically in the workplace because they usually are an expression of spontaneous celebration  — finishing a project, completing a sale, or successfully fixing a problem – are all used frequently in work-oriented relationships.

The Benefits of Physical Touch

Communicating appreciation by physical touch can have a positive impact in the workplace when done appropriately. You may wish to do a little real-life research yourself. We believe you will find that daily life observations affirm that physical touch is a language often used in the workplace. Watch how others interact when they have a positive collegial relationship. Observe how people respond when something good happens to someone in the workplace. Take time to notice the number of handshakes, fist bumps, high fives, pats on back, and other physical gestures. Interestingly, cross-cultural researchers have found that a pat on the back is almost universally accepted as an act that communicates appreciation.

Be especially alert in less formal settings such as over a meal, in an after-work social setting, or at a company picnic. You may be surprised at the amount of encouragement that is expressed through physical touch in a warm, supportive, positive fashion.

So, while we do not believe communicating encouragement and appreciation through physical touch is foundational in most work-based relationships, neither do we believe the workplace should become a completely “touch-less” environment. Appropriate acts of physical expression are valued by many with whom we interact on a daily basis and can add a depth of warmth to work-based relationships.

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