It’s rare we let people touch us, strangers especially. Perhaps in a congested city street or crowded subway car we’ll come in contact: shoulders may rub or hands will brush. But, even then, the touch is accidental and largely unwelcomed. Our bodies will stiffen. We’ll try to withdraw. Only by unavoidable circumstance do we allow a stranger’s touch.
Even with those we know, we limit ourselves when it comes to touching. In the 1960s, Sidney Jourard studied conversations in various parts of the world between friends in a café. Americans, he discovered, touched only twice throughout the interaction. The French, however, made contact over 180 times.
There are exceptions though: like those settings where a stranger’s touch is not only accepted but expected—places like yoga studios, piercing parlors, spas, and gyms. The places where we not only allow their touch, for the most part, expressively enjoy it.
Eventually, these strangers become friends and sometimes, something more. My cousin ended up in a committed, long-term relationship with her yoga teacher. I asked a piercer (guess who) out once on a date. We got ice cream and beer and today we laugh about it as friends. Even if the feelings never turn romantic, the relationships we form with these people are distinctly different. While the health benefits and aesthetic results certainly keep us going back, so do the people we pay to touch us.
I spoke with three industry professionals to get their take on touch, both in their professions and in a society where we touch technology more than each other:
Chloe Kernaghan, yoga instructor: "There is definitely a more personal connection you get with your students by being able to relate to them physically with your hands or feet or whatever you’re touching them with. It brings a relationship into the mix that is a little more primal. Of course on and off the mat, you always have to be wary of just how personal you can get. I am used to touching people at any given point on my day-to-day basis, so if I do touch anyone in a sensitive area, say the low back or the place in between the shoulder blades just to get their attention, sometimes people are quite startled. They’re like ‘Woah, that’s different!’ It’s like ‘Oh, a stranger is touching me and it feels nice.’ It’s good to have a physical connection with people. But, people are going to misread what they want to misread and make a move when they want to make a move. ‘Love you as a student,’ is what I say, ‘but we have to keep our space.’ Which is interesting because I’m constantly invading people’s space but then I’m like ‘Nope, need my own.' I can invade your space but you can’t invade mine. [Laughs]"
Key Son, trainer and creator of The New York Model Workout: "Personal training is one-on-one so you have to be very professional, almost to an extreme. I think physical contact is limited to three different areas—the first is the initial contact when you’re greeting someone. Or if I haven’t seen someone for a long time I’ll give them a hug. Then, there’s the session itself. Because I’m usually working with actresses who are getting ready for a role, there isn’t really time to get to know them or become friends which is better when you’re trying to get someone to a goal. Personally, I think 90 percent of the instruction should be communicated through verbal cues, leaving only 10 percent physical contact. At the end of the four-to-six week training period, when they reach their goal, usually there’s like a handshake or a victory celebration. For Daria [Werbowy], every time we workout we do, like, 600 crunches, so when we’re done there’s always a special handshake that we do. And I've noticed that all the young actresses give hugs. I think it’s probably from acting workshops where they give each other hugs? I don’t know."
J. Colby Smith, piercer: "When people come to see me, there’s definitely a lot of anxiety and nervous energy. All those things make it a very intimate and intense situation, and I feel like I bond very quickly with people because of it. I make sure to touch people so that they feel grounded and feel my energy. By the end of it, sometimes we’ll hug. These are total strangers who I might never see again, but it’s kind of cool because you can tell you make this weird little imprint on their life that they’ll take with them.
As for piercings and stuff, I like it, it’s cool, but I’m more addicted to the human psychology and interaction. I think that there’s an almost subconscious desire to regain connection with people. A very deep, deep desire to not only interact on a human level, but also be touched. I know people that come to me are touched beyond aesthetic or superficial stuff, that it’s gone deeper than that. That’s the real power of touch and energy and human connection in general. Especially in a city that’s so full of people, and still so lonely."
Chloe Kernaghan and client photographed by Alexis Cheung.