Tactile sign. 1. The act of establishing physical contact with one's own clothing or body parts (esp. hands to face; see HOMUNCULUS). 2. The act of stimulating one's own tactile receptors for pressure, vibration, heat, cold, smoothness, or pain.
Usage: Like a lie-detector (or polygraph) test, self-touch
cues reflect the arousal level of our sympathetic nervous system's
fight-or-flight response. We unconsciously touch our
bodies when emotions run high to comfort, relieve, or release
stress. Lips are favorite places for fingertips to land and deliver reassuring body contact.
Self-stimulating behaviors, e.g, a. holding an arm or
wrist, b. massaging a hand, and c.
scratching, rubbing, or pinching the skin, increase with
anxiety and may signal deception, disagreement, fear,
Culture. Diverse cultural gestures involve self-touching, as well. In Spain, e.g., holding a single long hair between the thumb and forefinger, and lifting it vertically above the head is a sign of "frustration." "This female gesture is a symbolic way of 'tearing your hair out' when feeling intensely frustrated" (Morris 1994:102).
Ethology. "They are called displacement activities because it was at one time thought that they are triggered by 'nervous energy' overflowing (displaced) from the strongly aroused motivational systems" (Brannigan and Humphries 1969:408).
Evolution. Self-touch cues originated ca. 180 m.y.a. in paleocircuits of the mammalian brain. As gestures, they reveal the body's wisdom in coping, e.g., with stranger anxiety, and with the daily stress of life in Nonverbal World.
Media. Hollywood stars once seemed robotic (i.e., stiff, wooden, and "unreal") until method actors such as Marlin Brando and James Dean brought natural self-touch cues to the screen. Brando, e.g., clasped his neck as he groped for words in "The Wild One" (1954). Dean's hand-behind-head gesture in "Giant" (1956) "humanized" the actor (i.e., the squirm cue revealed his vulnerability). Earlier, in The Big Sleep (1946), Humphrey Bogart blazed a trail by fingering his right earlobe with his right hand several times while pondering deep thoughts. (N.B.: As host of The Tonight Show [1962-92], Johnny Carson's boyish tie-fumble made him seem vulnerable, approachable, and friendly.)
Observations. Because self-touch cues reveal emotions (esp. insecurity and uncertainty), they are best avoided while establishing credibility with strangers. 1. In the conference room, a supervisor massages his lower lip with his left hand as he raises his right hand to speak. 2. A child clasps her wrist as she asks mother for a piece of candy. 3. A Brazilian Indian smiles nervously and pinches his abdomen as an anthropologist takes his photo. 4. A CEO bows her head and covers her mouth with her hand as she hears low sales figures for the month.
Primatology. "The more intense the anxiety or conflict situation, the
more vigorous the scratching becomes. It typically occurred when the chimpanzees
are worried or frightened by my presence or that of a high-ranking chimpanzee"
(Lawick-Goodall 1968:329 [also recorded in gorillas, baboons, Patas monkeys, and
man "under similar circumstances"]).
Salesmanship. One signal of a prospect's skepticism: "Touching the mouth, or masking the mouth with fingers or hand" (Delmar 1984:46).
U.S. politics. 1. "[President Richard M.] Nixon's 'Hand-In-Front-of-Body' [hand] clasp [i.e., holding onto his own wrist below his belt while standing] could have been an anxiety signal" (Blum 1988:4-3). 2. "Holding her own hand [palm-to-palm, thumb-over-thumb, with her elbows flexed at 90 degrees, her upper arms adducted against the sides of her body, and her forearms pulled into her abdomen while standing], Geraldine Ferraro seems to be seeking reassurance" (Blum 1988:4-7).
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1.
Earlobe-pulling, arm-scratching, and rubbing a
worry stone, have been classed as adaptors: "residuals of coping
behaviors that were learned very early in life" (Ekman and Friesen 1969:62).
2. Rubbing the face is a reaction to spatial invasion
(Sommer 1969). 3. Automanipulation is a sign of
"fearfulness" in children (McGrew 1972). 4. Self
manipulations increase with stress and disapproval (Rosenfeld 1973).
5. Hand self-manipulations increase as Japanese
subjects gaze into an interviewer's eyes, "reflecting the upsetting effects" of
eye-to-eye contact (Bond and Komai 1976:1276). 6. "When
excessive distraction through sensory overload occurs, as in the isolated
schizophrenic patients, continuous and repetitive rubbing of one hand upon the
other helps filter the overload by narrowing attention" (Grand 1977:206).
7. Motherless rhesus monkeys suck thumbs or toes,
clasp themselves, engage in head-banging, and show "symptoms
similar to disturbed mental patients" (Pugh 1977:200). 8.
Self-orality, self-clasping, and self-grasping are common
signs in motherless rhesus monkeys reared in isolation (Suomi 1977).
9. "Body-focused hand movements are arguably one of the most
common types of nonverbal behavior produced by humans" (Kenner 1993:274).
10. "Tactile stimulation may also serve a calming or reassuring
function when it is self-directed" (Goodall 1986:125). 11. In
public speaking, the most common touch may be finger-to-hand (Kenner
1993). 12. "Unconscious face-touching gestures indicate
disbelief in what is being said by the companion" (Morris 1994:31). Because the
listener feels a mental conflict in voicing his disagreement, he performs "a
minor act of self-comfort" (Morris 1994:31). 13.
Self-clasping gestures (along with upper-body rocking for
comfort [see BALANCE CUE]) are signs given by Romanian children
raised in orphanages of the 1980s-90s (Blakeslee 1995).
Neuro-notes. Apparently trivial self-touch gestures help us calm our nerves. Physical contact with a body part stimulates tactile nerve endings and refocuses our orienting attention inward, i.e., away from stressful events "out there." Self-touch works on the physiological principle of acupressure massage or shiatsu. Massaging the right hand, e.g., takes attention from the left, and vice-versa. Catching the thumb in a drawer, e.g., we may vigorously rub its nerve endings to compete with the brain's awareness of pain. Because the forebrain's thalamus cannot process all incoming signals at once, self-touch reduces anxiety much as it blocks pain.
See also AFFERENT CUE, YAWN.
Copyright 1998 - 2010 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of bilateral hand-to-face movements (in shock) and jaw-droops (in surprise; picture credit: unknown)