Staying in touch — the importance of human touch and how COVID is changing this
Last year, if someone had greeted me with a ‘foot shake’ I’d assume insanity, but in October 2020 it’s practically de rigueur. Instead of a hug we’re now exchanging tentative waves. Even Trump now accepts an elbow shake rather than touching another’s “disgusting” hand. Fundamentally, the ways in which we greet each other have changed as we physically distance ourselves from one another, in an attempt to keep the world safe.
An interaction as simple as a handshake between two strangers is no longer a friendly greeting but a potentially embarrassing, risky and ‘irresponsible’ act in the age of COVID-19.
Greetings may now be preceded by a moment of hesitation to decode another’s ‘COVID comfort level’. Is there yet a COVID-specific word to articulate the acute embarrassment of misreading the signs and getting the greeting wrong? The feeling of being left with a handshake hanging in mid-air, your gesture returned with a curt nod. Or to describe the awkward mumble designed to prevent an acquaintance dishing out an overly enthusiastic hug… I can’t be the only one!
But it’s not just humans who are having to navigate a world where we must sacrifice ‘touch’. Despite being a highly convenient form of technology, people are now also reconsidering the use of touch screens in public and shared spaces. For this reason, contactless services such as Touchless.ai are growing, and many US food chains, including Dunkin’ Donuts and White Castle, have recently agreed to adopt SoundHound Inc.’s new voice-enabled technology to replace their touch-screen kiosks, reshaping the entire customer experience.
This highlights a newfound awareness of touch, not only through our direct contact with others, but also indirectly within our surroundings. However, the tricky balancing act for businesses and brands moving forward is modernising, gamifying and COVID-proofing the in-store experience, without alienating those people in our society that still crave human assistance and lack trust in the technology they feel forced to adopt. Just ask anyone working for one of the burgeoning online challenger banks.
Why does touch matter?
Social touch is integral to human development: aiding mood regulation and cognition in infancy; reinforcing bonds with loved ones; improving cooperation and performance in the workplace.
A global Touch Test found that 75% of UK participants reported a positive attitude to touch. Interestingly, people who liked to touch also scored higher on extraversion, openness to new experiences and agreeableness, and those who had been touched recently were reported to have higher wellbeing & lower feelings of loneliness. Ultimately, hugs make people happy!
For these reasons, the current touch taboo may have significant implications for our health and wellbeing. According to the Texas Medical Centre, ‘touch starvation’ can occur when “physical contact becomes limited, or in some cases eliminated”. Touch starvation has a detrimental impact on an individual’s mental state, increasing the likelihood of stress-related illnesses, depression and anxiety. For those already living with these depression or anxiety, a lack of touch could exacerbate their condition.
Withholding touch goes against basic human needs, habits and traditions. Humans are social creatures and touch is a ‘is a crucial form of social glue’ which plays out in different forms in cultures worldwide. For example the Māori tribes of New Zealand have a traditional greeting, the ‘Hongi’, where two people press their foreheads and noses together to share a breath and as a symbolic way of showing unity between two people.
In Gulf nations, men traditionally greet by touching each other’s noses. Noses have cultural significance, a symbol of ‘pride’, rubbing noses demonstrates relatability and equality between two individuals.
Additionally, according to their Islamic rite, Muslims are encouraged to pray ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in the mosque. As touch has been compromised in favour of preserving physical health, worshippers must now pray 6ft apart as part of the ‘new normal’.
How have brands helped us stay connected?
It’s clear that in the absence of touch people crave connection and are longing for alternative ways to communicate emotion and instil togetherness. It’s one of the reasons we see people turning to ‘COVID-friendly’ gestures like the ‘Wuhan Shake’ or an Indian ‘Namaste’-style salutation. We’re also seeing new non-verbal behaviours emerge to compensate for a lack physical connection — love it or hate it we now find ourselves waving ‘goodbye’ on remote Zoom calls!
Brands are also looking for ways to help people feel connected. Facebook’s new ‘hug’ reaction is designed to allow users to demonstrate care and compassion from afar. In addition, people are using brands as avatars for affection. ‘Love Cocoa’ has seen a 500% increase in online sales of its ‘post-box friendly’ chocolate, as buyers use gifts to connect with their nearest and dearest.
We have also seen brands use advertising as a means of unifying people and showing us how we can better connect moving forward. Coke’s ‘Open Like Never Before’ campaign encourages us to appreciate what we previously took for granted and explore new opportunities for coming together. Walter Susini (Senior vice-president of marketing in EMEA), says that rather than relying on the notion of the world entering a ‘new normal’, the ad champions optimism and the search for a “better normal”.
As we continue to live in world where prioritising our physical health means forgoing a world of human touch, let us not forget the emotional impact that being apart has on our happiness.
Staying safe and physically distanced is essential, but shouldn’t mean losing our ability to communicate our emotions and take care of each other. While we can’t engage in the ‘before pandemic’ greetings and rites of touch, we still have 4 other senses available to engage with whilst our ‘touch’ is on pause.
Don’t underestimate the comfort and support of friendly gestures, the power of the written word, and the freedoms that social media have afforded us. Companies that are able to help people adapt and thrive in this new world — whether that be streamlining current frictions or adding a human touch in a world currently bereft — will find a new place in the minds of consumers.
We need to try to compensate for a lack of touch. At a personal and brand level, we all need to adopt new ways to stay connected, to stay healthy and to be happy.
Neha Ahmed is a senior consultant at Brand Genetics, an agency specialising in human-centred insight and innovation. With a background in Business & Management, she has worked at IBM in global resource management and is fascinated by culture, human psychology and social enterprise.