I Dislike Physical Touch. What Should I Do When I Travel?

Our Unpacked advice columnist shares her perspective with a traveler who prefers to keep a healthy distance between themselves and people they have just met.

Three men look at a point in the distance. Two are embracing, while the third stays a bit further apart.

Our comfort, or lack thereof, with touch may stem from many factors, including cultural upbringing and stigma. When we travel, we may meet people whose attitudes differ tremendously.

Photo by Harsh Gupta/Unsplash

Unpacked is AFAR’s advice column. Once a quarter, Dr. Anu Taranath answers an ethical quandary that a reader recently faced. Taranath is a speaker, facilitator, and educator based in Seattle, Washington, who specializes in racial equity and social change. She’s the author of the book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World (Between the Lines, 2019). If you have a question you’d like examined, please submit it to unpacked@afar.com.

I don’t like physical touch from strangers. However, when I traveled to the Dominican Republic, my hosts insisted on greeting me by hugging and/or giving me 2–3 kisses on the cheek. I tried not to recoil, but I still feel like I came across as rude. What can I do next time?

I appreciate that you seem to know your own likes and dislikes around touch—and that you are aware of how your inclinations might land on others. Travel often challenges our personal boundaries and rewrites the hard and fast lines into something more dotted and dashed.

Allow me to pan out for a moment. Though our specific likes and dislikes do of course matter, our preferences are rarely only our own. Our preferences typically emerge from our cultural, social, and environmental contexts. The way we see, taste, hear, feel, think, and touch is shaped in part by our backgrounds, what we’ve been exposed to, and what our cultures value.

When people greet one another—perhaps with a hug and cheek kiss, or a handshake, or a nod, or a raised chin and “Sup?”, or a bowed head with folded hands, or a fist-bump, or an “As-salamu alaykum”—we partake in collective routines, guided by cultural norms that are often tacit. Such norms are all around us, both in our own cultures, which we often take for granted, and certainly on display when we travel.

Most people associate touch with pleasure and comfort, but touch can also be unwelcome or nonconsensual. There are many reasons why someone might not like physical touch: temperament, social stigmas around gender and/or sexuality, upbringing, hurtful past experiences, health conditions, and more.

I don’t know why you dislike physical touch, or from where it might stem. I’m curious, however, if you might like to imagine alongside me for a moment.

Let’s imagine you might be open to revise your assessment of yourself as someone who dislikes touch. Maybe it’s not all types of touch you dislike, but particular kinds of touch that are associated with certain memories, experiences, or people. Might that be true?

If so, maybe it’s time to tell yourself a different story of touch when, say, approached by friendly local people greeting you based on their cultural routines and traditions. I am gently suggesting you release touch from the dichotomy of “I like” or “I don’t like” and see if you can appreciate the nuance in between. I’m not saying you need to swing to the other side and become a professional cuddler or offer free hugs on a subway platform—just that you might not have to solely reside in the “I don’t like touch” camp. When we reflect on which stories we are telling ourselves about “who we are,” we might be able to create a little space to invite in new ways of being.

Here are some strategies for your next trip to a hug-and-kiss greeting culture: Consider each greeting as less personal and more a matter-of-fact transaction. Imagine that people are not coming toward you to touch you per se and that people are simply rehearsing the cultural choreography they’ve learned over their lifetime. Depersonalizing the greeting and moving it into the realm of the social might help you leapfrog past any sticky interpersonal dynamics.

Another strategy is to reconnect with the reason you put yourself in new spaces. We travel presumably to grow, stretch, and yes, acquaint ourselves with new parts of us and others. Imagine, who else can you be during those moments of hug-and-kiss greetings? If you approach every new person with trepidation and aversion worried that they might touch you, you’re not going to have a very good time on your trip. Negative vibes too may waft off you, leaving everyone with less energy and ease. Instead of solely focusing on your own discomfort with touch, see if you can invite in awareness about scent and sound to help refocus the greeting ritual. What scent lingers in the air after hugging that lady? Can you hear the motorbikes revving up their engines on a nearby street? Dethrone the focus on touch, and instead, pay attention to your other senses and the reasons you travel in the first place.

If what I’ve shared above seems implausible for you—or if I’ve completely misread your particular situation—I wonder if wearing a face mask might help you create some socially comfortable space around greeting expectations. A mask could shift the norms without you or your hosts having to lose face. If a greeter steps in for the hug and kiss, you might point to your mask and say, “Thank you, I’m being extra cautious right now. Wonderful to meet you.” See if you can use your temporariness as a visitor and foreigner to offer reprieve from the social customs in which you would rather not participate.

You may show your desire for connection in other ways. Nod your head with engagement, crinkle your eyes with warmth. There are many ways our positive vibes can shimmy through the air and seep into the skin and heart of our recipient. Even without physical touch, we can still be touched by sweet moments.

Dr. Anu Taranath is the author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World and has been a professor at Seattle’s University of Washington for 20 years. She’s one of AFAR’s new Unpacked columnists.
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