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Touch can be a marker of power within relationships, especially among men. A person of higher status is more likely to touch a lower status person than vice-versa, and an older person is more likely to initiate touch with a younger person than the reverse. Touch can be perceived negatively when it is employed unilaterally—the boss has access to touch the employee but the employee cannot exercise the same privilege. This is an indicator of status. Communication expert Judy Pearson lists several examples of unilateral touching: “doctors touching nurses, customers touching waitresses, teachers touching students, managers touching subordinates, police officers touching accused persons, counselors touching clients and ministers touching parishioners.” It is clear that touch in these contexts is a demonstration of power and status.
However, touch also can be used as a power equalizer. Those in inferior positions may initiate touch with a person in a superior position in an effort to balance the power between them. However, sometimes these bottom-up touches can constitute power touch violations and can generate uncomfortable feelings.
My friend, communication professor Sonja Foss, had an encounter with a student that demonstrates how power touch violations can be unsettling. “I was teaching a doctoral seminar at the University of Denver,” she told me. “The class ended, and several students and I stood around talking. I made a joke, and one of the male students reached up, patted my face, and said, “Good joke, Sonja.” I doubt he would have done that if I were a man. I tell this story in my Gender classes to illustrate how those with the most power can touch those in lower power positions but not the reverse. It really felt like my student had violated a norm, because I had more power in that situation.”
Sonja’s experience demonstrates the use of power touch among people who are unequal in status. But what about those who hold relatively equivalent levels of power? A recent National Public Radio report on touch behavior among U.S. Senators elucidated “Capitol Hill’s unique silent vocabulary of body language and touches, a vocabulary that lawmakers use to bond with each other and also to assert power,” as NPR host Bob Edwards explained. David Givens, an anthropologist specializing in nonverbal communications viewed a videotaped scene during a Senate floor vote. On a high-speed playback, Givens said, “It reminded me of an ant colony.”
He was especially intrigued by one scene, a conversation among several Democrats—what reporter Peter Overby called “a 75 second display of most of the Senate’s vocabulary for acceptable power touching.” Tom Daschle, then the Senate Majority Leader stands at the center. “The others approach and touch him, but he doesn’t approach anybody. Christopher Dodd, another powerful Democrat, pats Daschle on the shoulder and then leaves his arm draped there. Daschle responds by putting his arm around Dodd’s waist. This could raise eyebrows in other settings, but not here on the Senate floor.”
According to anthropologist, Givens, Dodd is trying to temporarily reverse the power structure “and get dominance himself just by virtue of reaching out and touching. You can do this with your own boss. Go up, put your hand on your boss’s shoulder and temporarily at least your boss has to take the subordinate position, just because of the power of touch.” Touch carries unspoken authority “that goes right to the emotional centers of the brain and for that time period where touch is on it makes that person feel a little submissive.”