The Blurred-Line Relationships With People We Pay To Touch Us


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."

—Alexis Cheung

Chloe Kernaghan and client photographed by Alexis Cheung.

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  • Ailyn Koay

    I agree, physical touching sometimes creeps me out even though I know my trainer for months now

  • Q

    Love this post... as a naturally touchy feely person I find it difficult not to touch people I am conversing with... I understand that it doesnt work for everyone and I have become more conscience of it, however as I talk with my hands it is natrual for me to to reach out and touch.... I am surprised by the findings of Americans touching less.... I am a New Yorker living in Europe and I find Europeans touch much less... however as the study was done in the 60's I would say that things have definitely changed.

  • Bertiebeetle

    I'm a nurse so I had to become pretty comfortable pretty quickly touching complete strangers in some pretty private places who are probably already feeling sick and hungry and a bit scared. I am not at all touchy feely at home but I have realised through experience what a difference a bit of human contact can make. I'm all about holding a little old ladies hand or rubbing someone on the shoulder (only when appropriate!) and some people visibly glow or get this blissed out look like a kitty purring when you do. I think a lot of people are lonely, have minimal human contact and get used to going without touching. It's very sweet but also sad when you're sitting next to someone having a chat holding their hand and when you leave they don't want to let go! This turned into a novel but I really enjoyed this article and never thought about this stuff until I started working.

    • Alexis Cheung

      my mom is a former RN/nursing teacher and she would have her students massage patients. I know your healing touch is very much appreciated!

  • Veruschka

    Interesting post, but I find it really odd that you didn't include massage therapists - they have the touchy feeliest job of all, certainly more than a piercer or a personal trainer, considering they're getting paid to put their hands all over strangers' bodies several times a day! Seems like a bit of an oversight.

    • Alexis Cheung

      I thought about masseuses but didn't end up interviewing one-not sure why. Maybe I'll do a second piece with a massage therapist and acupuncturist or something, Thanks for the feedback!

      • Kit

        Masseuses give handjobs. Massage therapists (RMTs) are trained health care workers. I only say this because I am one and there's a ton of issues with the sexualization of massage therapy. In school, you're taught to never sexualize yourself since a client pursuing - oh let's say - your Facebook page could see a sexy photo of you and get the wrong idea when they come in for their appointment. It's a tricky area and we try to make it very clear. It's especially hard for male massage therapists, who have to always have their attention up for any indication of clients being flirtatious or whatnot, since they could find themselves in a "he said/she said" type of situation if the client gets the wrong impression or tries to overstep an ethical boundary. To be honest, on the whole, I find that male RMTs are far more professional in their approach than many of the female RMTs I've done exchanges with just for this reason. So if anyone ever gets a little freaked out at being assigned a male RMT at a clinic, keep that in mind and know they're just professionals trying to do a great job who care about your health and do not want to make you uncomfortable in any way!

    • Georgie

      I once went for a full body massage but didn't consider that "full body" included a stomach and thigh massage - felt like the most intimate thing ever hahaha

  • District Style

    I really enjoyed this article. I always wondered how professionals in these fields deal with personal space/touching. I think it would also be interesting to explore the emotional component of this and similar professions. For example, how often do people feel a false sense of emotional intimacy with their hair stylist, trainer, etc., because they often share with them information they might not share with their closest family or friends?

  • Rosie Fay

    As a circus arts teacher, I sometimes have to get all up in my students' business to keep them safe, but I give them a warning beforehand such as "This move can be tricky, so I'm sorry in advance if I grab your boob or push on a butt cheek!". I try to establish a fun report with my students so they aren't creeped out. And it's usually a firm shove to keep them safe or get them into position, not a skeevy caress.

    • SWF77

      In my combat class we are all super comfortable with each other. My instructor kicked me in the boob the other day and said "soft and squeshy! that was definitely your boob I kicked". I laughed and told him that yes, he kicked me in the tits for sure!

  • Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie

    Very true - I remember the first time a yoga instructor touched me when I wasn't prepared, I fell out of the pose. It's funny how PC we've become with the touching, the French vs American coffee statistic really illustrates that.