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Dolls, Mascots, and Human Touch January 9, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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pink_bookThe woman in the physical therapy center came in with a life-sized baby doll that she carried everywhere. She was not the only woman in the continuing care center to have a baby doll. The center apparently provided baby dolls for the residents who wanted to hold them, or perhaps they were shared. While she worked with her therapist, the doll, “George” sat on a chair to the side. Another woman wheeled herself into the room. She seemed to move up and down the corridors constantly, never speaking to anyone as far as I could tell. But now she made a beeline for “George” picked him up and said “Hi. How’re ya doing?”

I thought of this episode when I read an article this morning’s New York Times on the ubiquitous use of mascots in Japan and the industry that makes them. One of the theories for the popularity of mascots in Japan was that they provided an outlet for affection: A way to hug a human-like thing that is culturally acceptable in a low touch society.

I wonder if the same is true for the dolls given to the residents in the care center. Last month AARP The Magazine featured an article on “The Power of Touch” that suggested a therapeutic value of touch, particularly for older people who may be “touch-deprived” in the US. Are the dolls a substitute for real human touch?

hands touching

One of the first things one learns in studying other cultures is that the social rules for touching another person vary widely from one place to another. We sometimes talk about a personal space bubble that may have different dimensions depending on your cultural history and experience. Sometimes there are very strict prohibitions against touching another person or a person of the opposite sex. This can create some awkwardness in ordinary social greetings in other countries. An Indonesian exchange student I met here in New York immediately explained: “I can’t shake hands because I’m not allowed to touch women.” This is not an unusual situation. When making friends across cultures, it can help to speak directly when you recognize that the rules for touching are different. But what of those from high-touch cultures who are missing their hugs and kisses in a low-touch society? The good news is that people can be flexible and adapt to each other’s needs and concerns when they start to understand each other.