Dear Aspie: How to Handle People Touching Me?

Dear Aspie:
“What is the best way to handle people touching you? For example, a handshake, high-five or shoulder pat, or when you accidentally touch arms on the couch? Also, how does one initiate these things?”


Read on for GroovyDruid’s response!
Dear Aspie:
“What is the best way to handle people touching you? For example, a handshake, high-five or shoulder pat, or when you accidentally touch arms on the couch? Also, how does one initiate these things?”


I have trained as an actor for many years. I have seen a funny thing happen over and over in beginning acting classes: when an NT first steps on stage, he says, “What do I do with my hands?” He cannot decide whether to put them in his pockets, hang them loose at his sides, or strum his lips with his finger. No clue. He fidgets and keeps changing his hand position.

But you never hear this at other times, right? You have never heard an NT stop in the middle of a sentence, stare down at his palms, and say with a puzzled look, “What do I do with my hands?” No, in real life, his hands just do what they do. Why do NTs experience this sudden self-consciousness on stage?

Well, they are having an aspie moment. The NT actor is having trouble because he doesn’t know what should be motivating him. He doesn’t know whether Macbeth would have his arms folded, wave them around, or rub the back of his neck. Your question is essentially the same: “In reaction to others, what should be motivating my movements?” To use your example, when someone sits down on the couch and his arm touches yours, you don’t have the NT mental software that would immediately pull away or push back, depending on the circumstantial nuances. An inner monologue begins:

“His arm’s touching mine! Does it mean something? Is he gay? Is this a pass? No, this is a manly ritual to test whether I’m a pushover, isn’t it? Maybe I’m supposed to pull away. Maybe I’ll pretend not to notice. Wait! Maybe not noticing will send the message that I’m attracted to him, or that I am a pushover … AAHHH!”

By this time, your attention is buried deep in your own thoughts and not on the world and people around you. This introversion makes you slow to respond, timid, and very anxious, through no fault of your own. These behaviors destroy an interaction fast. The right touch made with hesitation or timidity conveys a subtext of distrust or bad intention.

So how to handle with panache someone offering an unexpected handshake or touching you inadvertently? I recommend using an actor’s trick that gives the actor the understanding and confidence he needs to grasp his motivation in a scene and react instantly. It’s simple, but very effective. The trick is, as soon as you enter a venue with other people, you mock up immediately what you think is going on. You create the story. Simple example:

I walk into an elevator. There is a man and a woman I don’t know. The woman has her arms crossed, and the man is looking at his watch. The story I make based on their body language is that the man is in a hurry, and the woman doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now. Great, I’m armed now. I step in, and he asks me, “What floor?” I’m close to the console, so I reach out to punch the button as I say, “Four.” But before I can do it, the man’s arm shoots out across me and hits the fourth floor button. He brushes me in the process.

Okay, what to do? He was clearly rude. But was it an affront, a move to put me in my place that I need to object to, or perhaps a way to show off to the woman by being in charge? My story tells me how to react. He’s in a hurry, and he wanted to get the elevator moving. Confronting him will only inflame an already irritable man who wishes me no real harm. Let it pass.

Later, as we are both getting off the elevator, the woman seems to stumble and puts her hand on my arm to steady herself. She says, “I’m sorry.” We then walk down the hallway near one another. Again, what to do? She’s attractive, and the stumble could have been a move to touch me and begin familiarity. Perhaps I should try to strike up small talk? Fortunately, my story saves me. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone, so the stumble was probably genuine. Leave her alone.

Learning some body language from books will sharpen your ability to formulate correct stories in any given interaction. You can get the true lay of the land by the way people posture and move. That way, you separate the tasks of figuring out what is happening and your reaction in the moment.

This brings us to the second part of your question: how to initiate touching. As you read in my previous letter to JediFrogman, men in Western cultures don’t touch very much outside of handshakes and high-fives, and the occasional hug among close friends. Your story will help you to make the right calls on allowable touching right away.

The technique varies little from that discussed above, except that you react to your own inner impulses rather than react to other’s behavior. It is important that you formulate your story quickly. Before you reach a person, you should have something: “He is happy to see me. He wants to talk to me.” With this scrap of story, you know what to do when the impulse to offer a handshake comes up: shoot that hand out there! It’s coming from a good story, and it will be perceived as spontaneous, confident, and well-intentioned.

But beware of laziness. If you approach people with the attitude that you’ll figure out the story as you go along, you are in for trouble. What happens is, the impulse to shake hands comes up, and then you stop to examine it. You say, “Wait! Does the story support this impulse?” Well, by this time, it’s no longer an impulse. It’s a stilted handshake, and this murders your rapport with the other person. They label you as coy and standoffish, and it is a hard label to rub off. People can tell when you don’t have your story straight.

This technique might sound simplistic, but it WORKS. It is an enormously powerful tool. You in a sense create your own interactions, and that allows you to be in the moment and react without a time lag.

Practice this technique with your family and friends every chance you get. You will make errors sometimes, and you will have embarrassments when your story is wrong. Whatever. It is better than never making a spontaneous gesture. Soon, you will start to notice more ease in your interactions. People will sense that you are performing consciously what they do subconsciously: formulating a story of what’s happening around them.

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