Touch Experiment Report 17/3/01 Carlisle

Di writes:

I felt relaxed about doing the experiment today but also a little wary of how it might go in Carlisle. I expected people generally to be quite defensive / defended and to some extent hostile. In fact, despite deliberately challenging myself by approaching as wide a range of people as possible including those who I thought might have very negative reactions, almost everyone responded with warmth and openness. Many were convinced they must know me but couldn’t remember who I was. One man walking alone, was so sure he should be able to remember me that he searched his mind for a while, then he said, ‘Jean isn’t it?’ He then expressed a lot of interest in the experiment and told me how he uses touch a lot in his work in order to get people’s attention and then get them to do things!

My method of approaching people was the same as I have done in the past – my hand touching the opposite shoulder. For example my right hand will touch the left shoulder of the person I approach. When approaching a group of two or more I attempt to touch each member of the group. When approaching a couple, I touch the male first. When approaching a family group with small children I don’t touch the children before the parents and then only if they are relaxed and happy about the encounter. I made about twenty encounters and even though I am writing this the same evening, I’m finding it hard to remember the individual reactions. There was the middle-aged woman walking alone who smiled warmly, said ‘hello’ and stopped to talk at length about herself – her name, her age, how she likes to dress, the colour of her hair – leaving me with a cheerful ‘hope we meet again!’ And the elderly couple who were initially wary and looked quite suspicious but who soon warmed to the idea, and when I said I’d done it before in London said that that must have been terrible – ‘People don’t talk to you down there’. A middle aged couple said people should touch each other more. There were two young girls who, in embarrassment perhaps, laughed a lot and seemed interested and yet could only respond to the things I was saying with ‘I suppose so’ through stifled giggles. There was a young bloke with three friends who just stared in silence back at me – speechless. Even when I started talking he walked away in silence while I went on chatting with his bemused friends. When I touched one of two young women the other touched her as well as if wanting to protect her. They both looked very worried, but when I began to talk they became relaxed and agreed that there is a need to make greater efforts to communicate with those around us. There was a young / middle-aged man walking with a young bloke and another person (whose gender I can’t remember and who walked quickly on) who looked horrified. He looked directly at my hand (I wondered if he thought I might have a weapon in it) but he too relaxed when I began to explain what I was doing and became amused and responsive and seemed to hover between wanting to get away quickly and stay and chat.

I remember people making comments such as ‘The fact that you touched me wasn’t threatening because the way you approached me was open and friendly.’ ‘Are you a visitor?’ ‘I wouldn’t have liked it if it had been a man touching me.’

The overwhelming feeling I am left with this time is how open and friendly people are, even though they may seem closed and unapproachable as they go round town. How easy it was for me to intrude into people’s personal space, cross the boundary that seems to be around each person and have a real meeting / encounter, however brief, that feels meaningful. I feel reassured and more comfortable about living here as a result. I fantasise walking through the streets where everyone is reaching out and touching each person they pass as a gesture of acknowledgement that we share the same spaces, tread the same ground, breathe the same air and that we don’t have to fear each other. The fantasy becomes one of a crowded market square full of people dancing – nothing ritualistic or stylised – but free and idiosyncratic. A celebrating of our commonality and individuality at the same time – a statement that can only be interpreted in terms of a shared caring for and nurturing of the ‘stuff’ of life itself.

Rachel writes:

Just before I met up with the rest of the group participating in the Touch Experiment, I began to get quite excited, yet nervous, at the prospect of reaching out to people in public. I wanted to start the experiment straight away as I walked on my own. Checking people out as passing them I would consider if they touch them or not, but tried to get out of this mindset that I should think about who to touch and who not to touch in order to allow these encounters to become more spontaneous. This is quite difficult though in an age where touching, especially strangers is loaded with significance and taboo and I did begin to wonder what it means for a 24 year old white female student to touch people at random in the street. Furthermore how those ideas or perceptions of what I was, would change as I encountered differences in age, sex, race, how each encounter would be marked by the difference of each individual that entered my periphery.

Once the Touch Experiment had started it felt very different to how I had imagined. Instead of thinking about all the individual encounters that were being exchanged I began to question the way in which I presented myself to the rest of the crowd. When there were good responses I felt I needed to talk to them for as long as possible in order to feel assured and confident about the need for such an encounter. Negative responses would often result in questioning my approach and doubting myself as an individual with the capability to make contact.

I did try to challenge myself initially by choosing at random but noticed that most of the men that I touched scurried away, often glaring in quite a threatening manner. On the second attempt I felt more comfortable about touching women who were older, middle aged to pensioners, since they often wanted to talk quite openly to a complete stranger. Different people experienced different relations with other types or groups of people so the fact that I felt more comfortable and got more out a certain sect of people possibly says more about the approach that is taken and the ability to treat people equally rather than as difference. But that is where the dichotomy lies for in treating people as equal can you still acknowledge their multiple differences as individuals? Does this mean that as you treat difference as individual do you make certain assumptions about those individuals? How do we treat people as individuals anyway? These were the kinds of questions I came away with which was unexpected.

The most significant and pleasurable experience from the Touch Experiment was the reciprocal process of interaction. Whilst initially we (participants) had consciously made contact with people for no other reason than for making contact, the exchange that followed was only accomplished through the willingness of both contacter and contactee. In that process it often seemed that we would both experience some kind of pleasure from the encounter. Even people that were a little uncomfortable and unsure how to react, may not have experienced initial pleasure, but may have gained something in the moment of potential recognition from someone else within the crowd.