The crucial social touching etiquette rules. The appropriate ways to touch someone or avoid touch on a social occasion.

What social touching etiquette is

Social touching etiquette is the set of rules to define when and how it is appropriate to touch someone on a social occasion. Such rules include:

  • When it is appropriate to touch someone.
  • The appropriate ways to socially touch.
  • The mistakes to avoid.

Follow social touching etiquette to know when it can be acceptable to touch someone or how to avoid touching on a social occasion.

General social touching etiquette principles

Social touching etiquette is based on two main principles:

  • Respect the local social etiquette.
  • Avoid embarrassing or annoying others.
rules for how to socially touch someone

Social touching etiquette rules

1) Who not to touch

The guidelines for social touching can vary based on age, gender, cultural background, and personal preferences. There are many socially acceptable forms of touch, such as a handshake or a hug.

On the one hand, touching can signal affection and intimacy. On the other hand, many people feel uncomfortable with touch. Thus, it is best to avoid touching anyone you do not have a close relationship with or who may be uncomfortable with touch. Be aware that many people do not like touch at all. Usually, people signal their openness to touch through body language. Displaying negative or close body language and keeping a wide social distance are signals of potential discomfort with touch.

In general, some forms of social touching are common as a greeting, such as a handshake or a hug. Same-gender touch is normally appropriate. Cross-gender touch can sometimes make people uncomfortable, and it is even inappropriate in some countries and cultures.

Avoid touching someone who may be embarrassed by it. Senior people may often prefer to avoid touch. Similarly, children may be uncomfortable with touch by adults they are not familiar with. Finally, it is not appropriate to touch someone with a formal profession or who comes from a conservative background.

2) When to touch someone

Social touching can be appropriate to greet someone, display affection, or draw someone’s attention.

Handshakes and hugs are most common as a greeting upon meeting someone. In some regions or social circles, handshakes or hugs are common also when parting. At any other time, both are uncommon and even inappropriate. A light touch can be appropriate at any time to call for someone’s attention.

In general, it is best to touch someone only if you are familiar with them. Hugs are appropriate only among people that are close. When you are introduced for the first time to someone, limit touch to a handshake.

3) The appropriate way to touch someone

In general, the socially acceptable form of touch is a light, brief touch with one hand. The lower arms are generally the most neutral area to touch. The shoulders, upper arms, and back can be appropriate too.

4) Avoid inappropriate forms of touch

It is inappropriate to touch any body area that can be considered intimate. Touching someone’s chest, abdomen, legs, neck, head, and intimate parts in public is almost always not acceptable.

Touch someone with the palm of one hand. Touching someone with any other body part is rude. Avoid squeezing, pressing, pinching, or tipping with a finger. Furthermore, it is best to avoid touching someone’s skin. Instead, touch a body area that is covered by clothing.

5) Social touching varies based on local customs

Countries, regions, and even social circles or families may have very different social touching customs. For example, Mediterranean and Latin cultures tend to be more comfortable with touch, while North Europeans prefer to avoid it. In some countries, social touching or cross-gender touch are frowned upon. Thus, on most occasions, it is best to observe others and mirror their behavior.

6) How to avoid touch

The most effective way to avoid being touched is to signal that you are not comfortable with it. Keep a wide social distance between you and other people. One meter is neutral. A social distance wider than one meter signals that you are not comfortable with intimacy and touch.

Social touching etiquette at work

The most appropriate behavior at work is to avoid social touching altogether. One of the crucial factors in business etiquette is to keep personal and professional separate. Thus, it is best to avoid any action that can imply some sort of intimacy, such as social kissing or touching.

In general, handshakes are almost always appropriate. Hugs, pats on the back, and even a light touch on someone’s arm risk crossing someone’s boundaries. Thus, it is best to avoid them altogether.

social touching etiquette worst mistakes

Social touching etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst social touching etiquette mistakes. 

  • 10/10. Touching someone who is uncomfortable with it.
  • 10/10. Touching someone who is keeping a wide social distance.
  • 8/10. Touching in an inappropriate way.
  • 8/10. Touching someone you are not familiar with.


  • Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans: