The inspiration for this particular blog post comes from a somewhat unlikely source:
I recently stumbled across a thread in a forum called “Ask Women” on the popular website Reddit.com titled, “What are some things that make women uncomfortable and are not totally obvious?” Many of you may be familiar with the format of this website, but for those who are not, know that Reddit allows users to vote on posts. The second most popular response to this question was from a user with the handle VeganDog:
Touching when I don’t know you very well or don’t give you the okay. Every “pick up chicks” guide in the internet suggests touching the person in certain ways to let them know you’re interested. That actually creeps me out and makes me feel like they won’t respect my boundaries when it’s really important.
My first thought was, yeah, I totally agree. For one thing, I agree with the sentiment that uncalled-for touching makes me worry that the person in question doesn’t respect boundaries; I make an effort in such instances to project clear body language messages signaling my discomfort, so either The Toucher can read my signals and is choosing to ignore them, or isn’t seeing my signals in the first place.
But, beneath that, unwanted touch offends me on an entirely different level because of how my brain processes sensory input.
Not only am I ‘creeped out’ on an emotional level by boundary-pushing touch, but physical contact of any sort is a very, very big deal to me. This comment got me thinking about the topic of touch in social contexts, and how the sensory experiences of autistic people are often misunderstood or minimized by neurotypicals.
Not maliciously, of course.
But neurotypicals seem to focus on autistic social difficulties without realizing that many of these social difficulties come from sensory issues.
My sensory processing is such that I am powerfully aware of each and every touch to my body.
Right now, as I type these words into my laptop, I am sitting in bed with a cat curled up against me. She is licking her fur, and her cheek is rubbing against my left arm every so slightly. It is a very pleasant, soft feeling, but it is also an intrusive feeling. I am acutely aware of every single point of contact between her tiny face and my arm. I am just as aware of this sensation as I am of my own thoughts and actions.
It’s as though my brain has relegated a portion of itself to her touch nearly equal to that which is the rest of my existence: thinking, typing, and chewing my already chapped lips. Half of my brain is experiencing my mind, and my identity. Forty percent of the remainder is focused on the fur against my arm, and the remaining ten or so percent is focused on the fact that there are people in the building with me, close enough to hear at times, their presences like glowing yellow auras I can see through the walls, through the back of my head.
Sensory hypervigilance is always there, weighing down my thoughts, limiting my focus, running in the background like useless malware on an old desktop computer.
All of this means that when a stranger shakes my hand, I am more aware of the physical sensations produced by that handshake than I am of the entire social exchange.
Unwanted touch draws me out of myself and my experience, and my already divided focus zooms in to a dramatic slow-motion close up of the contact: dust motes hang in the air as an enormous hand closes in, the whorls of the fingertips greasy with sebum, and slides into my own, the waxy ridges of their skin grating against mine.
When I shake a person’s hand I feel as though a tiny part of myself—my awareness, my consciousness, my identity—is commandeered by their touch, and I no longer feel fully autonomous. My mind reels with the overloading anxiety of the event. It is just as personal as (if not more personal than) eye contact for me.
In fact, I feel it is not an exaggeration to say that when I meet someone new only half of my attention is focused on actually meeting them. This is why I never remember a person’s name if I shake their hand when we meet.
As the first steps of formal introduction begin, the second half of my mind is whirling with anxiety: Will they want to engage me in a physical greeting? If so, will they go for a handshake, a hug, or—god forbid—a kiss on the cheek? Will I be able to stop them with my obviously uncomfortable body language? If they do notice my discomfiture and halt their advances, will they be confused, offended, or awkward about the slight, and will this color our future interactions?
I’ve noticed that this particular social stumble is much worse for me with women.
In my experience, men who are introduced to me default to a handshake, or no physical greeting at all. Plus, I’ve noticed that men are, across the board, more comfortable opting out of a physical greeting when they see how visibly upset I am by the possibility of impending contact—and more comfortable laughing off a botched handshake without taking it personally.
I usually try to have something in my hands when greeting new people, such as a handbag or a cat, to give a clear and socially acceptable reason to avoid the physical greeting.
Barring such excuses, I hold my arms close to my chest, tuck my chin, and flash my gaze back and forth from their face to their hands in a desperate attempt to communicate what is making me uncomfortable. Many people read my signals correctly, and if I can successfully execute this display before the hand is extended for the shake, often men will attempt to put me at my ease—intentionally or unconsciously, I do not know—by subtly occupying their hands (stowing them in pockets, crossing the arms), smiling, and continuing with the verbal greeting. Most men play it off like no big deal; a few others seem relieved when they realize they don’t need to go through that handshake silliness and become immediately more comfortable with me.
However, much to my chagrin, my neon flashing display of anxiety about impending physical contact seems to provoke different, and much stronger reactions in the women I meet.
At the best, they appear confused and slightly uncomfortable, and at worst, angry and offended. It makes me feel like an awful person; I worry they think that I don’t like them because I don’t want to touch them. Women seem to take this more personally. I understand it: we women are raised to take everything personally, to communicate in more subtle signals and read into every little detail. A neurotypical woman might very well use the avoidance of a physical greeting as an insult, a dismissal. But I don’t ‘mean’ anything by my avoidance, beyond the literal interpretation: I just don’t want to be touched. Men, who are raised to be straightforward, and actively discouraged from reading into signals, have an easier time understanding this. Where many women react with insecurity, most men react minimally, if at all.
(Though men react this way because I am a woman. The social importance of handshakes to assert gendered status in male-male interactions is another story entirely.)
Because of this, I find myself forcing enthusiastic handshakes with women (and extroverted men) in an attempt to avoid disgrace. And then I forget the name of the person I’ve just met. “Hi! My name is [extends hand, touches me] ~@#œº∆∂åd.”
On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when women do react with the relaxation and relief I described seeing in some men, they are often autistic (or very shy), and when that split second arrives where we both realize that neither one of us wants to touch the other it becomes an entirely different kind of emotional bonding moment.
We both smile, infinitely more comfortable with each other, realizing that we’re on the same page. I’ve found that the way a woman reacts to me introducing myself while actively avoiding a physical greeting is both a big part of my “aspie-dar” and a great indicator of whether we will become friends.
A neurotypical woman who is understanding of my anxiety is a precious gem. A shy, introverted, or autistic woman who is visibly relieved at the lack of touch (or, even better, doesn’t notice the lack) is just as precious to me.
Perhaps the worst part of this physical greeting conundrum is that I always feel like the party at fault when things go wrong.
I was recently introduced to a close colleague of my boyfriend. I already felt like I knew her—that strange, limbo kind of knowing that happens when you hear about a person all the time but have never actually met them. I’m sure she felt the same way about me. I also assumed that she was probably the kind of woman who would expect a physical greeting in any normal situation. She knew about The Autism Thing, but I had no way of knowing what she would do with this information when meeting me in person.
What resulted was the mental equivalent of the dreaded “hallway dance” that happens while trying to pass someone who is also trying to let you pass.
I tried my best to be both friendly and obviously enthusiastic about meeting her (because I was!), while struggling to do something, anything, with my hands; I remember I bent down to do pick up the grocery bags I had been carrying before I realized how useless and strange that would be. As the verbal greeting came to a close, I began to panic. I stammered a little, trying to find a way to turn the greeting into small talk to avoid the silence that would normally be filled by a physical greeting. She shuffled her feet and shifted her shoulders as the lull of silence in the conversation grew deafening. I curled my arms in a way that must have looked ridiculous, looking between her and my boyfriend, fighting the urge to step backward. The look on her face and the change in her posture when she realized I was afraid of touching her was a heartbreaking combination of mild confusion, guilt, and (potentially vicarious) embarrassment. The trailing end of our greeting was so obviously off that no one present could have missed it. I think she was worried she had offended me, while I was worried I had offended her, and of course, that I had “let down” my boyfriend, who cares so much for this woman.
We were each of us trying to accommodate the other, but when she stepped left, I stepped right.
Humans use touch as a form of social bonding, beyond simple formulaic salutations. The actual unwanted touch addressed in the Reddit comment was the kind of touch used in flirting, and I’d like to take a moment to step back and address this in particular, as this is a much more complicated type of social exchange.
I honestly do understand why touching (“kino“) is such an important pillar in Pick-Up Artist (“PUA”) literature (the type of thing Reddit user VeganDog referred to as a “’pick up chicks’ guide”); touching is a very natural way for neurotypicals to form social bonds. Neurotypicals to whom flirting comes naturally don’t usually need to learn what PUAs refer to as “kino,” as they do it without thinking.
The reason kino is so icky, while natural touch can be so endearing, is its forced nature. Regardless of the misogynistic under- and overtones in the PUA school of thought, I won’t use this space to throw the concept under the bus, since in many ways it’s a community intended to teach the socially inept how to be social, and I myself have learned a lot from PUA literature (how to join a conversation, for example). I do think it’s safe to say that the kind of person who feels they need to learn how to flirt is, logically, someone to whom flirting doesn’t come naturally. This means that when a clueless guy is told that he should strategically touch his ‘target’ while flirting, he’s probably going to do it in the wrong moment, regardless of whether the person he’s flirting with is receptive. Touching a person you don’t know well without asking first is a very risky game for us socially inept folk. But while it can be absolutely mood ruining if done wrong, or at the wrong time, it can’t be entirely ruled out because sometimes (when it’s natural and not forced) it really does work.
And to a person like me, this is fascinating to watch.
Imagine a couple on their first date having drinks at a restaurant. One party tells a funny joke. The other party laughs in that twinkling I-laugh-not-only-because-that-was-funny-but-because-I-like-you way, leans forward, and reaches out to lightly touch the hand of the other party, that rests on the table.
This is normal, and natural, and really does increase the hormonal bonding between individuals. But people can tell when this is forced, hence why PUAs usually botch the deal and come across as creeps. It only works when both parties want it to happen.
If you’re running around trying to ‘strategically’ touch people you’re flirting with, like you’re inside a game of The Sims and racking up social points in exchange for actions, all you’re actually doing is invading the personal space of some poor stranger.
While forced PUA-style “kino” is likely to offend anyone, it’s guaranteed to offend someone like me.
Once upon a time I was talking with a man at a party who was a perfectly friendly guy, who gradually became increasingly flirtatious as our conversation went on. I understood; these things happen. But when he, seemingly out of no where, reached out and placed his hand on my upper arm—a gesture that seemed awkwardly stiff and forced when compared with the friendly, natural banter of the conversation—I was immediately on high alert (in the literal sensory sense as well as the street-smart sense) and no longer felt relaxed and comfortable in the conversation. I left to join a different conversation with a different group.
Once upon another time, at a different party, I was having a great conversation with a different friendly guy who, like the man in the previous story, became increasingly flirtatious as the conversation progressed. But nothing about our interaction felt forced. Because we were sitting together on a couch, and humans often compulsively strengthen social bonding by decreasing proximity, he simply scooted closer to me as we talked. Soon, his leg was touching mine, and he eventually placed a hand lightly on my knee—all of which I of course noticed, and a large portion of my active attention was aware of this. But because this was a slow, natural progression that matched the progression of our conversation as we exchanged dialogue (and felt increasingly comfortable with each other) it didn’t feel forced, uncomfortable, or unsafe.
In the same way you might feel very uncomfortable if a stranger approached you on the street to tell a dirty joke, but you would roar with laughter at the same joke told by a close friend, our comfort with social exchanges is relative to our comfort in the existing social bond.
To add even more complication, a comfortable social bond is different from simply knowing a person well. To use the same analogy, you could enjoy telling a dirty joke to your best friend, but you might feel uncomfortable telling the same joke to your grandmother.
Touch is similarly personal for me. While I feel comfortable hugging my best friend, I do not feel comfortable hugging my uncles, even though I know them well and enjoy their company (sorry guys, I’m sure you understand).
There are very particular contexts in which I can not simply tolerate but enjoy physical contact with other people. This doesn’t mean I hate being touched, it means that touch is very important to me.
While touch is very important to neurotypicals (or we wouldn’t have all these social rituals around touch), it can be even more important to autistics, for both similar and different reasons.
It’s not as simple as saying, autistic people hate being touched (a sentiment I see often); it’s that context is absolutely everything.
If you’re a neurotypical hoping to avoid the mental hallway dance, know that the best choice is to just ask. There’s no shame in simply smiling and saying something like, “How do you feel about handshakes?” And if you’re met with a negative response, or awkward silence, laugh it off: “Good, we can skip the silly part. Nice to meet you, by the way!” It’s no big deal, and it shouldn’t be.
And if you’re an autistic with the same struggles, my advice is to either learn to deal with handshakes, and take control of the situation by offering your hand first (so you’ll know when it’s coming and can brace for impact), or to be open about your needs. Problems come from confusion, and a person who feels offended that you don’t want to shake hands is easily comforted by a simple, “I’m sorry, I’m autistic and my sensory problems make physical greetings uncomfortable for me.” For those of us stuck in the in-between, who, like me, can’t always muster the strength to shake hands but feel too uncomfortable to speak up… Well, let me know if you think of anything. I’d love to hear your ideas!
How do you guys handle physical greetings?
Do you have any funny stories about botched physical greetings, or flirtatious “kino”?