The movement is so natural that it goes by virtually unnoticed. A firm handshake, a quick embrace—each occur without much conscious thought. These forms of contact are what define your distinct friend group. At the beginning of the year, faces and figures flitted by without recognition. Trying to repel the strangeness of building a new social life from scratch, incoming first-years overcompensated.
What resulted was a surfeit of physical contact. It was all excited exclamations and a complex variety of one-armed hugs, hand-grabs, etc. Somehow, by actually making some form of brief bodily link as opposed to a comparatively bland “hello,” we were establishing that we were congenial and open to making lasting friendships with anyone.
Of course, now that school is well underway, that uniform physicality has died down. Or rather, excusing the cliché, it has become diversified. Suddenly, for certain people, the exchange has become reduced to a simple nod in passing. For the people you’ve grown most comfortable with, it’s exuberant high fives around. The spectrum runs wide.
At first thought, you might assume that your closest friends receive the most attention and, by extension, the most dialogue. That being said, this isn’t necessarily the case. On the way to class, I’ll see people I’ve connected with better than anyone—a handshake is usually only thing that’s swapped. Though it seems cold, evidence suggests even subtle touches are significant.
In his New York Times article “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much,” Benedict Carey writes that, “Momentary touches can communicate an ever wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more than quickly and accurately than words.” According to Carey, touch also works as a positive reinforcer—students are more inclined to participate in class after a supportive tap on the shoulder from the teacher. A warm touch also apparently induces the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin builds feelings of trust—hence the almost subconscious contact with growing friendships—but also represses the stress hormone.
This pattern of touch as a means of fostering a productive environment extends beyond the realm of academia. A paper published in the journal Emotion found that better teams tended to be the touchier ones. Researchers witnessed games of every team in the National Basketball Association and recorded instances of touch between teammates (hugs, fist-bumps, etc.). The resulting data was compared, and the top two ranked teams that year—the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics—were the touchiest. Meanwhile, the lagging Charlotte Bobcats were one of the least touchy teams.
But what comes first, the touchiness or the happiness associated with consistently dominating other teams? At face value, physical contact can be regarded as only indicative of high spirits or a friendship. To see if touch really is more than just an afterthought, it takes more exploring.
To determine the answer yourself, try something. The next time your day drags you down from the start, grab the next friend you know who will go straight for the hug or handshake the second you see them, no questions asked. Then, after catching up and moving on to your next engagement, stop for a second and see how they feel. According to an article published in Psychology Today, any sort of skin-to-skin contact may help lessen feelings of defensiveness.
What’s more, the authors of the article write that regular contact “can sustain bonds indefinitely.” Though the article moves on to focus more on the significance of contact in romantic relationships, the implications of its findings are noteworthy. Contact alone can sustain bonds between people.
Keeping all this in mind, what exactly does this mean for our various social lives at Columbia? It’s great that the likes of Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo are forming close bonds with their respective teams on the basis of back-slaps and other scoring celebrations, but why bother making regular physical contact with the people we already know?
As the evidence suggests, it helps keep things steady. Though the initial excitement of forging a friend group may have faded away, the vibe of that period of time is prolonged through continued contact. Especially during hard times, it’s best to loosen up and make the effort to greet friends with the same pattern of contact as usual. Focus on the verbal, rather than the nonverbal communication that got you to that point in the first place.
Lucas Macha is a Columbia College first-year. Macha Man runs alternate Mondays.
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