Disclaimer: While I've only been "frum" since June, I've been primarily shomer negiah for several years. I haven't always given it the attention it deserved, and being a bit of an idiot, I was shomer negiah except where it mattered: in my romantic relationships. That's no longer the case, even though there is no risk of romantic relationships until after my conversion anyway :)
The Most-Thought Yet Least-Asked Question: Are you shomer negiah? What's it like? I applaud the brave souls who have asked me this question. It's a pretty awkward way to start a conversation, but I think it's certainly worth talking about! It cuts to the heart of our relationships with each other and how our culture influences those relationships.
Yes, I am shomer negiah. In short, this means that I try to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex. As you'll see, I don't think it's a big deal. But I know it seems absolutely crazy to basically everyone I've ever known. It's certainly one of the less popular practices of the orthodox lifestyle, and it seems alien to a culture where people openly discuss their one-night stands (If you've ever spent any time on a college campus, you know this is true at least for the younger generations!).
If you thought the no-sex-til-marriage kids were crazy, just wait until you hear this one! Even crazier to people is that this means no touching the person I'll eventually (hopefully) marry. Yes, the first time I will touch my future husband is during the wedding ceremony. No hand-holding, no hugs, no innocent kisses. This is a total 180 degrees from how I was raised. My parents believed (and told me from a young age) that people should live together before deciding to get married. And I took that advice once upon a time, and it seemed like great advice! As you can tell, it didn't work out for me (or perhaps it did exactly what it should have?). I'll admit, I was raised in the secular world, and it's scary to think about being shomer negiah with the person I'll want to marry. We live in a "test drive the merchandise" culture. But my failed relationships haven't been any better for that philosophy, and I don't think we ever knew each other as deeply on an intellectual and emotional level as the couples I know who dated following orthodox practices. The practice of shomer negiah forces you to rely on the deeper levels of a relationship, and you trust that the physical will work itself out. And to date, science generally says that once you get the chemicals going in your brain, all the physicality will take care of itself. If I have difficulty trusting Hashem, perhaps I can trust science?
So far, my experience is that shomer negiah, like kosher, is one of the areas that can create the most stress with our loved ones. Why is that? Those two areas affect our relationships with other people the most. We share affection with our friends and family, just as we break bread with them. Dressing tznius or going to synagogue 7 days a week are fundamentally self-contained. Of course these internally-directed practices can be a stress point, but I think shomer negiah and kosher are the most outwardly-directed of the mitzvot. These are the parts of our life that we want to share with other people.
Let's be honest: the key is don't be a jerk about it. When people make big life changes, it can be easy to become excited and (to be perfectly honest) a little self-righteous. You've had a major revelation, and why doesn't everyone else just get it? The conversations I've had with friends and acquaintances about my life changes usually evolve into a discussion of their experiences with other friends who "frummed out." Your friends and family worry about your life changes. Are you the same person? Will you like the same jokes and the same activities? Will our relationship change? What will we talk about? Will you try to convince me that I have to change my life too? It's important to remember that these questions are important to your loved ones because they love you, so their concerns deserve your respect.
How can you infuse your observance of shomer negiah with respect for those who aren't? The very first lesson I learned from my very first rabbi was that shomer negiah is no excuse to embarrass someone. (Those first 30 seconds convinced me that this man should be "my rabbi.") And that's how I try to approach shomer negiah. Avoiding embarrassing someone is a mitzvah just as much as shomer negiah, and sometimes one mitzvah takes precedence over another. I think of this as almost a perfect example of that concept.
As a future professional, I've made peace with the "necessary evil" of handshakes. I haven't inquired much into the issue yet, but my understanding is that handshakes are a pretty common leniency in the modern orthodox world. The basic rule I've created for myself is that I don't initiate physical contact with the opposite sex. I also don't put myself in situations that lend themselves to (or encourage) that kind of contact. Then I let the chips fall as they may. I've taken care of myself; I can't control the actions of others. And thankfully, no one tries to touch me on a regular basis, which means that I haven't created a script for explaining shomer negiah to friends and strangers. One day, I'm sure I'll create one, but so far, it hasn't been necessary. Though I'm not sure what I would say!
Personally, what was the change like? To be quite honest, it wasn't a big change for me at all. I was raised in a family that isn't very touchy-feely. Thus, I'm not a touchy-feely kind of person. This means that I very rarely initiate physical contact with anyone, regardless of sex/gender. Interestingly, strangers touch me a great deal more than the people I've known for years! And sometimes, it's not as innocent of a touch as you might think. Unfortunately, I encounter the "lingering a little too long" handshake or back touch from clients with regularity. Most females recognize it on some level (because we're used to looking out for Creepy McCreepies), but we rarely pay much attention to the touches that seem "innocent enough." They're still unwelcome, even if they don't reach the level of a police call or a slap in the face.
But just because the change was easier for me doesn't mean that I haven't found meaning in this mitzvah. I pay a lot more attention to my body and how others interact with it. Being mindful of myself and the people around me is one more way that Judaism requires us to be mindful of the physical world and our interactions with it. To me, especially as a single girl (since it's a whole other ballgame once married!), that's the meaning that I find in shomer negiah.
On a physical level, it's amazing to me how much more sensitive I am to touch. It is as though my nerves are no longer so dulled by overuse and by ignoring the power of touch. I wonder if this is part of the "honeymoon effect" people attribute to the laws of family purity! I think it might be. And if so, the future could be awesome. Just sayin'.
In short, shomer negiah isn't so weird. Most of us aren't crazy and/or brainwashed. And I'll do my best to not make it a big deal and embarrass you. I'm doing my thing, and I'll let you do yours. I just ask that you respect my boundaries. But selfishly, I also ask that you don't make fun of me or think I'm an idiot. I think it's the best way to live my life, and I've come to that conclusion through a lot of experiences and study. I understand that people worry that this kind of practice "isn't healthy." And no practice is when you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Shomer negiah isn't crazy, and intelligent people can choose to practice it without being brainwashed.