TThe two men, sitting side by side, begin to cry. Her brows knit; her eyes become moist; their mouths open as if preparing for the gasps that precede a sob. And then Roger Federer‘s hand reaches out Rafael Nadal‘s.
When Federer and Nadal touched each other’s hands at last week’s Laver Cup, they seemed to touch the tennis crowd; Social media was awash with emotional reactions. Federer had just played the last game of his career and here was a moving coda. The two great rivals had been battling it out for tennis’ biggest prizes for years, and now that the era is coming to an end, they sought one another’s consolation. The moment is captured in a widely circulated photograph, an image that moves nonetheless because it is still.
Had Federer slapped Nadal on the back, we might have guessed that the picture would not have garnered nearly as wide a circulation or as emotional response. Holding the hand was a striking display of intimacy for those who shared or commented on the image. What, The Independent asked anthropologist Robin Dunbar, can we learn from this?
Holding hands, Dunbar says, is a calming gesture of the kind that could evoke an endogenous morphine response in either party in the face of emotional excitement. Federer, who felt Nadal choke, gives his old rival a sign of his support.
“People don’t do that unless they really get along, if you will, off the pitch,” Dunbar says. “But I think the background is the observation that [Andy] Murray said this was the end of an era for her. They all felt that. They could let their hair down and be less focused and more personable. It would go without saying for them because I think all four” – Federer, Nadal, Murray and Novak Djokovic, all present that night – “get along pretty well off the pitch.”
Dunbar, Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford, is also the author of Friends: Understanding the power of our most important relationships. In the recent paperback book, Dunbar explains the tactile component of friendship and the differences between genders and cultures. He also writes about the number of friendships we can cultivate: about five close friends and about 150 acquaintances with whom we have enough history to support intimacy. Elementary schools and military units often have around 150, a number that is now known in psychology as the “Dunbar number.”
In a friendship between British men, holding hands, as Federer and Nadal demonstrate, would be unlikely even in a top five situation with close friends. “We’re a bit of an outlier,” says Dunbar, also author of How religion developed. “Most cultures, or a lot of African and Middle Eastern cultures, and maybe even Far Eastern and Southern Far Eastern cultures, are seen hand in hand quite often.”
Even in Europe, British tactility levels are not the norm. Dunbar’s research group has found that Italians, among others, are more sensitive than northern Europeans (perhaps the group also discovered on their trips to Italy that the Pope is Catholic). Japanese and Russians are just as averse to physical contact as we Brits are. “Even so, in the course of normal conversations, we do a lot of slapping on the back and clapping our arms around our shoulders.”
But why is there this intercultural difference? One wonders if it is somehow related to the climate; Dunbar contradictingly refers to the surprisingly tactile fins. “It’s really bizarre, but some of these cultural habits have very, very deep roots, way back, so I don’t know if it has anything to do with Germanic cultures that go back to the mists of pre-Roman times. ”
Those age-old cultural differences persist, says Dunbar, citing Roman dismay at the amount of alcohol consumed by the hardy Germanic and Celtic tribes on the empire’s northern ends. Of drinking, Dunbar says: “The Romans were simply speechless. They couldn’t understand why people did that. And we still do! This is exactly what the British and Germans do when they go on holiday to Marbella or wherever, while the Italians and Spaniards quietly sip a glass of wine.”
Holding hands is not only inconspicuous among Italians and Spaniards. Women, says Dunbar, are “much more sensitive than men. This became very clear in our polls across these countries, including Japan. We looked at where on their bodies people like to be touched by other people or where they touch other people. Women were much happier than men to be touched on a large part of their body, across all of these cultures and very consistently.”
This, in Dunbar’s view, is symptomatic of the key difference between intramale and intrafemale friendships. Female friendships, says Dunbar, “are generally much more intense than male friendships at best. Men are a lot more easygoing.” (Dunbar seems to enjoy making fun of male friendships and agrees with me a previous interview that men will be friends with anyone who can lift a pint.) “So you expect there to be a lot less physical contact with men everywhere. Part of the problem here is the usual thing of people deriving everyone from some, well, people from freezing Britain who go to Arabia and see a bunch of guys walking down the street holding hands and saying, ‘Look, they all do it . ‘
“The answer,” Dunbar says, beginning to giggle, “is, ‘No… it’s subtle, depending on their relationship and the age of the relationship and so on.'”
Even in the UK, younger men engage in this type of affectionate, tactile behavior, only to stop when they learn the behavior could provoke homophobic taunts from classmates. “If you look at younger boys of primary school age, they’re more likely to do that. It’s only in secondary school that you hear ‘You’re gay’.”
This merging of affection and attraction, and the view of avoiding that attraction as something, may be a holdover from Victorian morality, Dunbar suggests. “But I’m not sure anyone really knows. It’s just one of those cultural things. The problem with boarding schools was this ethos of toughness that toughened you up to run the empire. But at the same time there is a natural affection between boys and young men and that creates all kinds of tensions.”
Are 21st-century men missing a crucial element of human bonding? Should we whine, I wonder not holding hands, or do we have the same effect if we pat each other on the back and put our arms around the shoulders? Dunbar thinks it’s the latter – he doesn’t think the binding effect is inherent to the specific gesture. Chuckling again, he brings up rugby, a sport said to be very masculine but also insidiously tactile.
Dunbar, 75, has something of an outsider’s view of the Brits. He grew up on what is now the coast of Tanzania, one of those places where tactility is a little less uncommon than Britain, before coming here for secondary school. “Pretty much everyone I grew up with found this transition to school in the UK to be everything from weird to very stressful. It was a very different culture and our life experiences were very, very different and very multicultural. Most of us were bilingual in local languages.”
With this outsider’s perspective, he ponders whether men’s hand-holding could become more common in the UK. “It’s always possible,” he says. “It’s like an air kiss that shockingly crossed the English Channel from France. Heaven save! It changes largely as a result of population movements or exposure.”
In the 18th- or 19th-century edition of the Grand Tour, Dunbar says, aristocratic Britons traveled to France and Italy and “looked askance at all these continental people kissing each other and came back home shaking their heads. But as soon as we have a lot of population movement – let’s say a lot of people come over from the continent – they bring their local habits with them. These habits are introduced to the local population because it is trendy or cool. I think that’s what happened while air kissing.”
Without warning, Dunbar influences a’s plum voice Bufton Tufton. “‘Good heavens! Next we’re going to have people walking down the street holding hands!'”
Much has been written about Federer’s legacy; maybe one day we’ll add his post on British male holding hands.