In public, however, things were trickier. While Hertenstein had assured me that opportunities present themselves frequently, I had a tough time discerning when it felt right to reach out. But I got my chance on day two, when I accidently stepped on the back of a woman's shoe in line at the grocery store and she whirled around to give me a dirty look.
"I'm so sorry," I said, pausing to squeeze her wrist to drive home my sincerity. Her expression softened as she said, "No problem." It was a small gesture—and not nearly as awkward as I had imagined.
No one wants to be stepped on, of course, but a warm touch, even if the other person isn't prepared for it, can create an instant attitude makeover, says neuroscientist Michele Noonan, PhD. "Touching someone while apologizing helps build a connection," she explains. "The sensation triggers the brain region called the insula, which is involved in emotional processing, and can help ease a person's irritation in the moment."
That night, when an old friend came over for dinner, I felt dissatisfied by our perfunctory hug hello. It seemed a shame that in light of my recent experiences, I greeted her with a squeeze that felt as if we were merely fulfilling a rote social obligation.
"I need another one," I blurted out. My friend laughed nervously—she's one of the least demonstrative people I know—but she opened her arms so we could embrace a few seconds longer. When we separated, she said, "You know what? I needed that." The hug seemed to unleash her: Suddenly she was tearing up, telling me about how the man she'd been seeing had become distant—not calling, canceling dates. When she'd arrived at my apartment, her face hadn't betrayed that anything was wrong, but that extra physical connection allowed her to feel safe enough to let it all out. Such a simple action, I realized, had conveyed deep meaning.
By the end of the week, I was touching friends, strangers, and coworkers more naturally, and all the contact was making me smile. There were no grand bear hugs or extended periods of hand-holding—but every touch felt like a little gift to the other person and to me. In fact, on the last day of the experiment, not wanting to be selfish, I asked my boyfriend for a massage. For his sake, of course.
Diana Spechler is a novelist and freelance writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and GQ.
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