Our interactions are not confined to linguistics

The Weinstein backlash has reached parliament, and it is deeply unpleasant to watch. Numerous allegations have been made at Tory MPs, on the basis that their behaviour was inappropriate (though what that means, technically, one is not quite sure). An accusation I have found strange, particularly as a tactile person myself, is that of being “handsy”. This was charged at Damian Green for touching a journalist’s knee and Adam Sandler last week, too, who put his hand on Claire Foy’s knee on BBC’s Graham Norton Show.

Being “handsy”, like many of the accusations on the dossier, is ambiguous as a description. It might mean a serious groping offence (wrong), or someone touching another person affectionately, or even meaninglessly. Most instances of being handsy – which can be synonymous with “tactile” – strike me as harmless, but it’s become difficult to tell what the boundaries are between inappropriate and appropriate contact these days.

Everything has been merged into one, and my guess is that as the result of the last few weeks men will become increasingly fearful of physical interaction, lest it causes confusion. We seem to be moving towards a world in which physical contact through the sexes must be cleared through verbal permission, to ensure consent at all times (#theplotof1984). But this goes against human nature, and our instinct to blend nonlinguistic and linguistic communication. We are animals, in the end, reading off body language cues and facial expressions to interact with others.

Of course, it’s not great when people read body cues incorrectly. Most women, and men (yes), have experienced someone getting the wrong idea. In men’s defence, what I think is interesting is that psychological data suggests they can be less emotionally intelligent than women. The greatest indication of this is the profile of psychological disorders across the population. Men are much more likely to have autism – referred to as “the extreme male brain” – which is typified by difficulties in empathising. Women suffer much more from mood disorders, which highlight more intense activity in the emotional area of the brain. It may be controversial to suggest, but not impossible to imagine that differences in empathy levels – even on a tiny scale – might sometimes explain why men get the situation wrong when reading romantic interest, and make a move.

Of course, some people are just vain or stupid, too. But for their faults, it would be a great shame to start policing physical interaction. Indeed, if we limit it, we enter very difficult territory indeed. At worst, that might mean every time someone wanted to hug someone they’d have to get permission. In romantic situations, it would be a huge turn-off. I know, because a date once asked me if I wanted to “snog him”. He might as well given me smallpox for all the enthusiasm on my face. (And no, we aren’t going out any more).

None of this is to say being tactile is always appropriate, but we need to make distinctions. Non-linguistic communication is embedded in us, just as much as the need to use words. Maybe even more so.


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