Angie Anderson
SPEE 633
Professional Communication
Dr. Daniel Cronn-Mills
Spring 2009

Topic 1 Abstract 2: Professional Dimensions of Nonverbal Communication
Lee, J. W., & Guerrero, L. K. (2001, Aug.). Types of touch in cross-sex relationships between
coworkers: Perceptions of relational and emotional messages, inappropriateness, and sexual
harassment. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29 (3), 197-220.

Haptic behaviors are a “touchy” subject as a fine line exists between what is considered appropriate and inappropriate touch in the workplace. Whether a behavior is interpreted in an interpersonal relationship as appropriate or inappropriate depends on the context, the relationship, and gender of the two individuals. Since touch is considered by many the most powerful, yet ambiguous, form of nonverbal communication, the authors decided to pose six research questions related to the interpretation of touch in the workplace between two coworkers.
RQ1: How do observers interpret different types of touch between coworkers in terms of intimacy, attraction and positive affect? (p. 201).
RQ2: How do observers interpret different types of touch between coworkers in terms of dominance? (p. 202).
RQ3: How do observers interpret different types of touch between coworkers in terms of formality and composure? (p. 202).
RQ4: How do observers interpret different types of touch between coworkers in terms of inappropriateness and sexual harassment? (p. 203).
RQ5: Do people interpret touch initiated by women differently than touch initiated by men within the context of cross-sex coworker relationships? (p. 203).
RQ6: Are there sex differences in how observers interpret various types of touch enacted within the context of cross-sex coworker relationships? (p. 204).
The researchers created 36 videotaped short (30 seconds) interactions between two people of the opposite sex from a pool of four actors (a white woman, Hispanic man, African American woman, and a white man). The script was exactly the same with the only interaction variable being the change in the single touch exhibited. Nine different types of touch were shown: handshake, clasping hands, soft touch on the forearm, arm around the shoulder, arm around the waist, soft touch on the cheek, tapping the shoulder in a condescending manner, push against the shoulder, and no touch (control condition) (p. 204). The researchers eliminated blatant forms of sexual harassment such as a grab of the buttocks or breast, and instead included forms that could be interpreted more ambiguously. The sex of the actor initiating the touch was varied. Participants viewed the videos and then completed a likert scale questionnaire asking for their interpretations of the initiated touch shown in the videos.
Women were viewed as “more affectionate, trusting, happy, and composed than men” (p. 215). Face touch was seen as the most intimate touch followed by an arm around the waist and thus both are most capable of being misinterpreted as a fine line between affection and harassment (including inappropriateness). The shoulder push was viewed as inappropriate for the workplace and instead more of a gesture for “buddies.” However, women were viewed as more composed when they used a forearm touch and a push on the shoulder. The researchers speculate this is because these “touches are seen as more masculine than feminine,” thus “some observers may feel that a woman must be particularly comfortable and composed if she feels free to push a male coworker on the shoulder” (p. 216). As expected, the handshake and no touch were seen as the most formal, whereas the face touch and arm around the waist were seen as the most informal touches. Men initiating touch were more often perceived as using touch romantically, sexually, and as a form of flirtation compared to women. The researchers believe this perception may play into the stereotype that men are more inclined to view interaction in sexual terms.
No significant sex differences were shown in interpretation of touch used for dominance. The researchers mentioned that different results may be obtained if the actors were presented as a superior and subordinate relationship, rather than a coworker relationship. In addition, there were no significant sex differences in the interpretations of the touches based on the sex of the observer filling out the questionnaire.
Limitations of the study include the use of adults with the average age of 20. College students may have a much different view of appropriateness than business professionals who have been in the working world for several years. In addition, a majority of the participants were White/European American. How certain aspects of nonverbal communication (particularly touch, proxemics, and gestures) are expressed and interpreted varies greatly among different cultures. Although, the study showed no variance in regards to interpretation based on the ethnicity of the actor initiating the touch, different results may occur if the individuals coding or interpreting the nonverbal communication were of varying ethnicities.
Tactile communication sends strong messages. In some cases research has shown positive effects of touch, such as waitresses receiving higher tips when using touch and patients healing quicker when touched. The cliché, “healing touch” is often used to explain the positive power of tactile communication. However, the danger lies in the ambiguity of interpretation of touch messages. The same type of touch can be viewed as appropriate and welcoming by one person and inappropriate and harassment by another. Case in point, there was a significant variance “in perceptions of face touch, with some observers rating face touch as non-harassing and others rating it as highly harassing” (p. 214). Communication is irreversible; “a single touch during a 30 second interaction makes a difference” (p. 217). Therefore, the practical implication for this study is for business professionals to be reminded they should carefully consider the consequences of touch before it is used in the workplace.