We live in a culture plagued by hover handing, where a guy is too nervous to touch a girl with his hand in a situation where it's not only permissible but required by basic manners. So although it comes off as rude and makes him look awkward, he just lets his hand float somewhere near the girl's body. This site has some of the more famous examples, while this one is updated with depressing frequency.
Last year I reviewed evidence from pictures of real life that the young people of the mid-20th century also appeared to be flagrant hover-handers. I hardly found any such pictures of young people from the '60s through the '80s. My basic conclusion was that these changes over time reflect how sociable vs. cocooning people are -- outgoing people are more comfortable being touchy-feely with one another.
But after looking more into the phenomenon, I've noticed that there seem to be two different contexts where it occurs, one with slight and one with major offenses. That variation ought to give us more clues about what's driving the behavior.
The first situation is where a guy has met up with some way-out-of-his-league chick who he will never see again, let alone get the chance to touch again. Often he's an autistic nerd at some comic book or video game convention who has paid to have his picture taken with a famous actress, or who decides to snap a picture with some of the hired guns ("booth babes") paid to make the convention look less slovenly and ugly.
In these cases, the guy tends to commit only minor hover hand. I guess he feels like he paid whatever it costs for the actress picture, or when would he ever see the booth babe again -- there'd be no way for him to feel embarrassed by her later, or for her to spread gossip about him to anyone in his social circle. Granted most of these pussies aren't going to fully contact her, but short of that they're going to go for the gold. Look through a lot of the pictures at the two sites linked above, and you'll see. Here are some examples:
The hand is as close as it can get without touching, including the fingers that curve in a cup-like way to stay pretty close to the surface.
Unlike these fly-by-night situations, where he could suffer no consequences, the second situation involves a guy -- usually not even a nerd, but someone from all walks of life -- and a girl who he's connected to in some kind of long-term or lasting relationship. It could be boyfriend/girlfriend, close friends, prom dates, clubbing buddies, or any combination. The setting is some kind of highly sociable event like a house party, school dance, beach, bar, or nightclub. They're having their picture taken to capture their feelings for each other.
Oddly, these cases show the severest degree of hover-handing -- and only by the guy. Often the girl is leaning toward or into the guy's chest, perhaps pressing her head against his, and non-awkwardly touching him with her open hands. She's always smiling and gives no loud signals of feeling uncomfortable touching him or being touched by him. Yet when he's with girls he knows, today's young male stiffens his arm even farther away from the girl next to him. Again, look through those sites to see for yourself. Here are a few examples:
Now the hand is much farther away, nowhere close to the surface, and the fingers may even be partly balled up so that even if his hand did accidentally graze her body, only the outside of his hand would do so, not the sensitive inner surface.
Why is hover-handing so much worse when they're socially closer? He must be more concerned about how his level of hands-on-ness could affect his reputation in the future. That's something that the nerd paying for a picture with Summer Glau doesn't have to worry about. The guy in the second situation doesn't want to become known in his social circle as an octopus who paws every girl he stands next to. And what better way is there to signal how unlikely you are to get touchy-feely than by refusing to clasp the shoulder even of your close friend or girlfriend? By comparison, all other girls would stand less of a chance still of being touched by you.
The dating and mating lives of young people have become much more monogamous over the past 20 years (see the Youth Risk Behavior Survey). A young guy trying to pursue a promiscuous strategy these days is not going to get too far, at least compared to where he could've gotten in the '60s, '70s, or '80s. And young guys themselves pick up on that in real life after awhile. When they try to place their hands on the girl who's wiggling her butt around in their crotch at a dance, and she either removes his hands or simply bolts off back to her friends, they eventually learn that the ubiquitous attention-whoring of their female peers does not actually lead to sex.
So now that girls insist a lot more strongly on monogamous commitment than before, they're going to want to see some honest signals. One easy way for a signal to be honest is for it to be costly. And it's harder to imagine a more costly behavior than a young guy restraining himself when he could be touching the bare skin of some babe who's already pressing herself against his body. Like, how could she expect him to cheat on her if he's not even comfortable touching a girl he's already gained the trust of and may be dating?
I don't think it's a conscious, Machiavellian deception by the guys either. They appear genuinely awkward touching girls they know, not like they're just faking it for the moment, and then they'll turn around next week and cheat on her with several different girls. Rather than guys consciously altering their true preferences, it looks like girls are just choosing a different kind of guy, someone who deep down gets uncomfortable laying his hands on a girl's body. That would certainly fit with all the other lines of evidence that females are starting to choose the doormat, good-provider, doofus dad type for their long-term relationships.
This signal does not seem vulnerable to being faked either, like if some promiscuous guy just forced himself into a hover handing gesture to gain the girl's trust, and then love her and leave her. After all, it takes more than one instance of hover-handing to convince the girl that you're a low-libido beta-male. It's just one more hoop the guy will jump through as part of the ever longer, blue-balling courtship process of the 21st century. A truly promiscuous guy is going to figure that all of that isn't worth the trouble, and try to get a different set of girls in some other way.
And of course this idea explains why hover-handing was so common in the mid-century: aside from being a less sociable culture, it was also one where females insisted on males being meek, monogamous providers. Not like what the Flaming Youth had experienced during the Roaring Twenties.
There are other types of societies where men go to great lengths to not touch women, like the tropical gardening (horticulturalist) groups where men hang out only with each other, and seclude women and their polluting sexuality, except once in awhile when the business needs to get done. However, in those places the men are incredibly violent, boastful, and gaudy in appearance. Highland New Guinea, for example. They are cad rather than dad societies. The guys above, though, are peaceful, meek, and drab. So ours doesn't seem to be a case of the Fear of Women phenomenon.
A falling-crime period almost by definition is one that feminizes men. In earlier stages of pacification, maybe that was a good thing (or not), bringing men from incredibly violent extremes back toward the center. But at least since the 19th century, our falling-crime periods, having already made their largest advances, are taking us from a moderate level of masculinity toward outright feminization -- the Victorian era, the mid-century, and the Millennial era.
An upward tick in the crime rate back to where it was in the '60s, '70s, or '80s would keep us very far from savagery, but move us back far enough to let men enjoy a basic level of guy-like behavior. Now they're so warped that they feel paralyzed just to touch their own girlfriend.