Touched

The great thing about unfamiliar situations is that you get to learn about things that you didn’t know you didn’t know anything about. One of my roommates at the moment is a Fulbright scholar from India. Her first week in the United States (ever) was spent at an orientation session with other international Fulbright scholars, where they were dutifully told everything they could expect from America and interacting with Americans.

“The thing they kept saying to us was, ‘Americans don’t like being touched’” she tells me almost immediately. This is just after I have met her, she is moving her things into our house. Also, just after I have had the internal debate of how to greet an arriving Fulbright Scholar from India. My first inclination was to hug her, would that be weird? We got closer, she didn’t seem like she was going in for the hug, so I thought a handshake might pass, ah, no, ah, well, ok so we just settled for a hurried exchange of words and then she was inside unpacking in her room. After hearing how terrible I was as an American about physical contact, I could have just kicked myself for living up to the hype.

I have been thinking a lot about the implications of touch in a medical setting as well. My first semester of Physical Therapy school was an introduction for me into the world of therapeutic touch. Well, actually, that is where it is all going, to get us started we were mostly tasked with identifying anatomical or bony landmarks on each other. Find the acromion process, scaphoid bone, tibial tuberosity, iliac crest…

Not the most difficult thing in the world, but I’d like you to think for a moment how you are going to do this on a person that you don’t know very well. You’re wanting to palpate the acromion process, so you’ll need to touch the person’s shoulder. Would that be strange for you? How often do you touch the bare shoulder of a stranger? Is it going to make the other person uncomfortable?

I heard this story recently of a massage therapist going back to school. And she was going to medical school, so the first year she was in medical school she was in a clinical skills class learning palpation skills and assessment/testing (I imagine somewhat similar to our introduction PT class). Her initial reaction to the class was one of shock, “These people don’t know how to touch each other!?” And I can imagine that she was right, how in the world are first year medical students going to know how to touch another person and do a professional evaluation? But, here’s the thing, she wasn’t just talking about the students, she was talking about her professors too!

I wonder if these stories are intimately related? How do we learn to touch another human being in a caring and compassionate way without practicing it? I think there is so much fear in our culture about illicit touch and inappropriate sexual touch, that most people opt out of human contact altogether, even with close family and friends. That is sad to me. Where did we decide that touching each other was bad or weird or a sign of weakness or just plain awkward? My hope is that we can choose a different way that includes loving and respectful touch not only in our personal lives but in our professional lives. At least, that is what I hope to learn.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Teresa Trout
    Aug 29, 2015 @ 19:19:28

    So good to hear from you Leda! Loved the blog. Sending you hugs (big touchy hugs) from Nevada Cuty. 😉

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  2. James Speer
    Aug 30, 2015 @ 19:12:48

    Interesting read, keep blogging! I had horses growing up and if you’ve been around horses you know that you have to touch them so that they know where you are. If you don’t you might earn yourself a broken rib or three. I use that sort of touch to identify my location in crowded areas subways, work, classrooms etc., but outside of that I find it incredibly difficult to initiate touch with individuals even after long periods of knowing them. It actually makes me feel better knowing that it seems to be a systemic problem for most Americans.

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  3. grandma jody
    Aug 31, 2015 @ 17:01:00

    Reading TOUCHED, a welcome resumption of your blog, reminded me of the time, just a few weeks ago, that you took my hand and manipulated each finger, practicing a technique you had learned. Your gentle touch, while bending each joint and quietly explaining each move, persuaded me that you were on the right career path. I think you can trust that initial inclination you had to hug your new roommate from India.

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  4. Trackback: The Downside of Farther and Faster | Farmer Leda

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