AGENCIES | THE GUARDIAN -When I was 17, during a confessional campfire round-robin on a school trip, a teaching aide made a striking admission. “I don’t know when it suddenly became the thing to hug all of your friends, but I don’t really like hugging,” I remember her saying.
This eminently reasonable personal preference surprised me. In the mid-late aughts of my western Canadian adolescence, social hugging was so ubiquitous that it never occurred to me to question the practice. I hugged people frequently throughout my youth: my family, my schoolmates, the kindly lady who taught me piano.
For teenage me, physical boundaries were an unfamiliar concept – partly because I was the product of a time and place where casual touch was the norm. But different people grow up with different norms, depending on where they come from and what they’ve experienced. And what’s considered ‘normal’ is always subject to change.
Like most norms involving close physical contact, hugging quickly stopped for safety reasons as Covid-19 took hold last year. In an instant, the pandemic offered a crash course in how to navigate each other’s comfort zones and personal space bubbles (at least, among those who gave a damn about following the rules). But the seeds of a hug-reckoning had already been planted, well before social distancing became a part of daily life.
Covid-19 arrived as conversations about touch and consent hit a tipping point. Millennials who remembered being expected to hug everyone at their childhood family reunions had begun reconciling their politics with their parenting, and introduced the semi-controversial idea that nobody – not even grandma and grandpa – is entitled to hug their kids without the children’s permission.
Taken altogether, we’re looking at a very different era for hugs than the night of my fateful fireside chat, so many years ago. In the time since, and especially during Covid, we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on our collective norms and social patterns. Now is the time to actually decide how we want to move forward with hugging as our communities reopen – and if we want to continue hugging at all.
Welcoming hugs with a warm embrace
Some of us miss hugging deeply. “I’ve always been very affectionate towards friends and family,” says Sabreena Osborne, 42, a new mom who lives in Gary, Indiana. “It’s part of my love language. [Hugging] is physical affirmation.”
But despite being fully vaccinated, Osborne hasn’t resumed hugging everyone just yet. “Socially, it’s a little more awkward than it used to be, because you don’t know who is vaccinated and who’s not, and I have to protect my newborn,” she says. Still, she’s glad to be reintroducing some more touch into her life.
“It feels like filling up an empty tank of gas – that’s what it feels like when you have a real, genuine hug,” Osborne tells me. “Missing that for so long is very weird.”
There are, in fact, scientific reasons for why we crave embraces. “I think what it means to be human is very much to be social and to be connected to other people,” says Helena Wasling, a physiologist studying the human tactile system at the University of Gothenberg. “Our skin is meant to be there for intercommunication, human to human, which connects us and makes us the human beings that we’re supposed to be.”
Especially when we give long, mutual, meaningful hugs, our brains release the hormone oxytocin, which calms us and strengthens social bonds. Being deprived of such touch can lead to “skin hunger,” a craving for connection that can cause or exacerbate mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Wasling believes that light, non-invasive touch – such as a pat on the upper arm – is a universal good, and that those who are comfortable with offering such forms of touch have “a social responsibility” to “identify people that are lonely and that might need the extra hand on the shoulder.”
Greg Andree, a 50-year-old teacher in Swansea, Massachusetts, used to be hug-ambivalent. “I never liked hugging people I just met, or the obligation to hug people I barely knew,” he says of his pre-pandemic stance.
Then, Andree lost family members to Covid. Being unable to grieve in person, in community with others, gave him a deeper appreciation for the emotional power of human touch.
“When someone dies, everything you do is inadequate,” Andree says. “But at least [pre-pandemic], we had that physical thing where we could try to squeeze the grief out of each other for a few seconds at a wake or funeral,” he says. He adds that, at a recent, post-vaccine wake, he was grateful that “I at least had that inadequate hug to give.”
While many welcome the return of social hugging, some of us will emerge from the pandemic with a lingering aversion to excessive physical touch, or with new caveats for whether a hug is acceptable – especially with people outside our inner circles. When the health minister of British Columbia floated the idea of instituting a post-pandemic “hug day” in her province, Vancouver-area law student Rose Morgan “had a [negative] physical reaction”.
“I really miss hugging my close friends,” says Morgan, 30. ”What I haven’t missed is the obligation part of it, and people assuming that you want to hug. I don’t want a meaningless hug!” she says.
Brandon Harris, a 29-year-old student affairs coordinator in College Park, Maryland, concurs. Harris believes that the pandemic gave us all a practical public health lesson: that indiscriminate hugging can spread illness.
“If we kept these [Covid safety] measures in place, even just physical distancing and wearing a mask inside during specific seasons like the fall and winter, I think we’d have less people being sick,” Harris says. Reducing the practice of social hugs could mean gentler cold and flu seasons in the future.
Navigating the brave new world (of hugs)
To minimize awkwardness and confusion around physical touch in post-pandemic social situations, it’s important to understand boundary-setting not merely as a defensive position, but a courtesy you can offer when approaching someone. People often respond to implicit social pressure by compromising their boundaries – like accepting a hug they didn’t really want – just to be polite.
Huggers can pre-empt such discomfort by simply asking “‘Are you OK with a hug? Can I give you a hug?’” says Conlan Mansfield, 29, a Vancouver-based mental health worker and former self-defence instructor in my own circle.
Mansfield says that in both professional roles, he quickly learned the necessity of centering other people’s physical and emotional boundaries. He also realized that the best way to assess a person’s boundaries is to ask them explicitly.
“Because then it’s pretty incontrovertible,” Mansfield says. “Someone’s like, ‘No thanks!’ And your response to them can be, ‘Great!’ You don’t need any more explanation.”
If you’re the person who doesn’t want hugs, Mansfield suggests thinking ahead of time about what you will say or do if someone beelines towards you with outstretched arms. Having a game plan means you can simply execute a decision in the moment, rather than being caught off guard.
I know that when it’s safe, I’m going to be an enthusiastic hugger again. But rather than barrel into embraces, I’ll first be asking if it’s OK. Boundary-setting is only awkward if we make it awkward.
“It’s an act of love for someone,” says Mansfield. “It’s saying what you need out of a relationship. And when someone can’t express their needs, that relationship isn’t working.”
With Mansfield’s wisdom in mind, go forth and hug. (Or not.)