A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

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One thought on “A Touchy Subject”

  1. On the topic of looking into people’s eyes, I’m constantly being told that I need to meet people’s gaze more often. That not doing so makes me look shifty, untrustworthy, or disrespectful. Of course, I’ve also heard how other countries diametrically oppose this school of thought and find someone disrespectful, overly intimate, or intimidating when you look into their eyes.

    Personally, I dislike meeting another person’s gaze as I sometimes feel I get a ‘too thorough’ impression of their thoughts. Their body language is usually sufficient. Adding in the information from the subtle changes around the eyes then becomes overwhelming. Especially when I need some sort of distraction to push aside my communication anxiety, it becomes taxing to consider too deeply on what the other party is thinking or feeling.

    In terms of touch, I’m completely clueless. This too changes depending on local culture, but has an even greater degree of variability even within that culture. Add to that the hypersensitivity of present day brought on by concerns of sexual misconduct and the issue becomes completely baffling. I generally don’t touch anyone. Not feeling much need for that kind of interaction, I dislike even high-fives or fist-bumps and often suspect the initiators are mocking me. But, normally, putting a hand on a shoulder has seemed acceptable, maybe even desired, by most people I interact with in my culture. The trick seems to be timing the duration and strength to be appropriate to their relative social closeness while considering the nature of the conversation. As it’s an effort for me to even think to touch someone, I tend to try to stretch this out longer than I’m comfortable with and likely still come off as awkward and perfunctory. In general, I’m fairly certain my desire not to be touched is clearly evident, so people are already expecting me to be stand-offish and appear thankful of the attempt, however brief.

    With children, however, it seems to be more about how close the parents are to you rather than how close you are to the child. Treat it like when you want to pet a dog, you always have to ask the owner if it is OK for both your safety and theirs. When you want to talk to, pick up, play with, or show a child something you must first declare your intent to the parent, both for your safety and the child’s safety. If you forget this rule before hand, it has to be mentioned as soon as you remember and make sure you apologize to the parents. When it comes to one-on-one relationships, asking what is appropriate often defeats the point. But discussing the issue with a relevant 3rd party rarely seems to cause problems.

    As a priest, part of your role is to be close to the children of your community, but people will be overly suspicious due to various public scandals. To further detail what I’ve come to understand about interactions with children, the key rules appear to be these:
    1) Never go somewhere alone with a child. If you’re in a room with them, make sure the door is left open and always be willing to let a concerned party participate in group activities.
    2) Never interact with a child without first interacting with their guardian. 3) If there is a health or hygienic issue, pass it on to a mother or the nearest trustworthy female. It’s expected men will do this anyway, so don’t feel like you’re running away from the problem. (People will be suspicious if someone (especially a man) appears too willing to help change a diaper, assist in potty-training, change a kid’s clothes, clean up a mess, or take care of a sick child. They won’t appreciate your help unless they’ve specifically requested it or if no one else is available.)
    4) Let the child be the one to initiate contact first. Children are often trusting and feel a need for physical contact. They will readily ask to be hugged, touched, or carried without your prompting. Try to accommodate their requests, but remember to be extra careful of rules 1 and 2 in these instances.
    5) Always make sure you can give and freely offer accounts of your actions to the parents. Try to include the reasoning behind those actions as well.
    6) If you’re legitimately worried about a child’s immediate safety, then, as respectfully as possible, you can violate any of the above rules to insure their safety. In this day and age, no parent will refuse another overprotective presence. Furthermore, displaying that over-protectiveness can be a good way of showing parents that you are indeed trustworthy.
    7) Make sure to keep an eye on anyone who is not closely related to the child and breaks, or is about to break, the above rules. Inform the parent as soon as possible. If you can’t find the parent, use your best judgement to correct the problem as quickly as possible. Likely it’s nothing serious, but you must allow their guardian to determine the severity in these cases.

    I took the ‘Safeguarding God’s Children’ course at our parish, but it only really covered the fact that pedophiles exist and requested a background check. It didn’t cover the ‘best practices’ for avoiding, preventing, and identifying such situations. It would have been nice to have been given something like the above rules, especially for someone like me who struggles with social norms. I’m fairly confident where children are concerned, so hopefully I’ve covered the most important topics in the above rules and they’ll help you in knowing how to act around kids.

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