My roommate Julia and I like to hold hands. Walking to the bus stop, walking to class, walking to a theatre, mall, or grocery store, we are almost always holding hands. We like it. It’s comforting. It’s fun. And yet, Julia and I are the vast minority. For some reason, amongst my peers, hand-holding is reserved for romantic relationships. No matter how much one friend may love and care for another friend, the affection is rarely shown physically.
And, true, it is completely valid to want personal space. And, also true, some people require more personal space than say, Julia and I do. But surely Canadian society—and perhaps particularly the ever-stoic Mennonite Canadians—could be less touchy when it comes to friendly touch.
When I was in Kenya, it was normal to see two teenage boys holding hands at the children’s home as a simple sign of friendship and camaraderie. I have yet to see any of my Canadian, straight, male friends hold hands outside the purposes of a joke. The girls at the children’s home were also more comfortable with touch, and when they extended the touch of friendship to me I was acutely aware of how welcome it made me feel.
So why are we so afraid of touch? As infants, touch is vital. When babies are not held and hugged enough, they stop developing. They may even die. If they do survive, babies that grew up without loving human physical contact can lack empathy, struggle to connect with others and develop aggressive tendencies. And touch isn’t only important for babies—hugging and cuddling releases Oxytocin in our brains and can actually improve health in adults by lowering blood pressure.
If loving, safe physical contact is so important to our physical and social development and our health, why do so many of us grow up to avoid any touching outside of a romantic relationship? Perhaps unhealthy touch is too often experienced, or the idea that physical contact with friends is inappropriate and childish too prevalent. Perhaps we have expanded the idea of personal space until there is no longer any room for normal, friendly touch.
Part of the reason I’m writing this is because Julia is still in B.C. while I have moved back to Manitoba for the summer. I am fully planning on persuading one or two of my friends here to become hand-holding buddies with me. But I genuinely believe that if physical touch between friends was more common, some of the pressures on romantic relationships would be lessoned and bonds of friendship strengthened.
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