Touchy subject: to hug or not to hug, that is the question

I didn’t grow up in a family that hugged all the time.  When a hug was important to and meaningful, yes, but I don’t remember it being a frequent occurrence after I was little.  The community I grew up in included families from a variety of cultural backgrounds and personalities, and I did indeed notice that some families hugged everyone – often.  Aside from noticing the differences, I didn’t think much about it.

But COVID changed that.  One of the most prevalent complaints I heard, and read in blog posts, was how much people missed their hugs.  And one of the biggest cheers that went up in blog posts a few weeks ago marking 2 years of life in a global pandemic – and the gradual return to normal (maybe or maybe not prematurely) – was the return of the hug.  Boy, have hugs been missed by lots and lots of people.

But not everyone.  Yes, the human touch is important to our well-being, even critical.  And in some cultures, perhaps even the majority of cultures, the human touch is ever-present, in the form of hugs, handshakes, cheek kissing, double cheek-kissing, double- double cheek-kissing, and back patting.  For many people, perhaps the majority, this is simply what’s expected and no big deal one way or the other, while for others it provides an important sense of comfort and belonging.  But, as I said, not everyone.

A few months after the COVID lockdowns started 2 years ago, one of our sons pointed out that this period of social isolation was traumatic for those who suffered from FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out.  Needless to say, as an old person, I hadn’t been familiar with this expression.  He went on to say that, on the other hand, the lockdowns provided a safety net for people who fell into the JOMO camp – the Joy of Missing Out!  It strikes me that the same differences can be said of people who miss a world of hugs as opposed to those people who experienced some quiet joy in not having to hug when they didn’t want to, having the excuse of COVID.

There are many legitimate reasons for people to not want someone they don’t know well to touch them.  Or even someone they do know well.  But it’s very difficult in our society for people to be able to say so without causing a scene.  It shouldn’t be like that.  We should be able to respond to people’s preferences to avoid casual touching with an equally casual, “Oh, sorry” and take your hand or arms away.  The big question is how can we make that easier without needing to have severe pandemic restrictions in place?  I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s something we should think about.

One example comes from a blog post written some time ago by someone’s whose posts I learn from every time, Rachel Ward at Stay Positive It’s Autism.  She writes about the challenges of raising three kids with the oldest one being on the autism spectrum.  In her post entitled Don’t Detox My Kid, which I highly recommend as worthwhile reading for everyone, one of her main messages is: don’t touch other people’s kids.  Her oldest son does not do at all well with being touched by others, even though of course in most instances it’s being done with the very best of intentions.  It leaves an anxiety-ridden child and a parent trying to settle the child down, yet again. All simply because people don’t understand.  The reality is that a child – or an adult – doesn’t have to be on the autism spectrum to feel uncomfortable being touched.  There are plenty of people who wouldn’t be able to explain why, but they just don’t like it.

As anyone who has watched politicians greeting others must have noticed, or anyone who has been to events where circulating and “being seen” is a thing, the handshake is just the first step in a greeting.  Especially when it’s man on man.  It starts with the handshake and then moves to the arm grabbing and the back patting.  What’s that all about, anyway?  Is it a power thing about who’s taller and so has the back-patting advantage? Who’s more powerful?  It’s a somewhat bizarre ritual, if you stop and think about it.  And for all the men who think they’re being jovial and inclusive when they place their hand on a woman’s back –a fellow politician, community leader, academic administrator, or other competent, engaged woman – to guide her into a room or to a seat, you’re not having the desired effect.  At best it is patronizing.  It’s certainly not necessary; we can find our own way.  And for some females it is downright creepy and upsetting, and yet they don’t know how to say so.

Power-struggle-FinTimesMacron and Biden both trying to win the greeting power struggle! (Image source: Financial Times)

As I said at the outset, I don’t come from a family of big huggers.  But some hugs were very important to me.  One happened a very long time ago.  My Dad died when I was 19.  I loved him dearly, but I don’t remember lots of hugs.  Obviously I was upset by his unexpected death, but I went back to university and got on with my self-absorbed young adult life.  However, one night maybe 6 months after Dad died, he came to me in a dream.  This would have been 56 years ago.  I can still remember what he was wearing in the dream and I can still remember him telling me that everything would be all right.  Then he smiled, enveloped me in his arms, and gave me a big warm hug.  I could feel it.  I still can.

HugPinterestImage source: Pinterest

The other hugs that have stayed with me happened only last summer, July 2021.  We hadn’t seen our kids or grandkids since Christmas of 2019 because of COVID lockdowns.  The Atlantic provinces had literally closed their borders to travellers from outside to keep the virus at bay (it turns out you can only keep your borders closed for so long, virus or no virus), and none of us thought travelling was a good idea anyway.  Until last summer.  The borders opened and both families came east from Ontario.  Just typing this I can remember the first arrivals, our son and family from Ottawa, coming in our front door and getting hugs from each one of those four wonderful people.  I tear up and can feel the power of their hugs right now, just like my Dad’s.  Then when we saw our other son and his family shortly after, the same thing happened.  The feelings in those hugs said all that was needed to be said about how happy we were to see each other after so long.  About how much we mean to each other.

For more casual hugs or touches, perhaps a reasonable starting point would be to learn to read the body language of the other person before deciding whether hugging’s or touching’s a good idea.  We need to find something less traumatic than pandemic-enforced social distancing to let people not hug if they’d rather not.  As a society, we need to learn how to understand and respect people’s personal space.

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38 Responses to Touchy subject: to hug or not to hug, that is the question

  1. Jean says:

    I had to learn how to hug as an adult. Traditional Chinese folks don’t hug. In fact, we never saw my parents kiss.They had 6 children.

    I personally prefer not to hug people at work. I don’t think it’s necessary for folks who really aren’t good friends of mine. They don’t know my troubles and real triumphs outside of work. However I’ve seen this in the past decade which I never saw in previous workplaces.

    Whatever.

    Hugs in a family can be significant….so it’s taken my family awhile.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jean. “Whatever” may be the best approach of all, as long as the huggers learn that it’s acceptable not to want to be hugged. As long as “whatever” is a 2-way street.

  2. BernieLynne says:

    The one thing I didn’t mention is that the hug, if it lasts 20+ seconds, actually releases oxytocin, so that’s a win!

  3. Rose says:

    Good article and good comments. I grew up with no hugging and was never a hugger. 3 things changed that for me – the birth of my son, marrying my true love, and now my grandbabies. I don’t really enjoy hugging others, but with my group I can’t seem to hug them enough. 🙂🤗

  4. That picture of Macron and Biden is still easier to look at than when Macron and Trump had that weird handshake standoff several years ago. But yes, it still constitutes a forced display of affection. My wife is a big hugger, especially with those she doesn’t know very well. The pandemic has stopped that practice for now, but my sense is that once a hugger always one. I need to show her this post! – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You got that one right, Marty. When I was searching for a pic to illustrate, there were plenty with you-know-who. Gave me the creeps, each one. I think you’re right as well with your “once a hugger, always a hugger” theory. Maybe some of the comments from non-huggers will help!

  5. margiran says:

    The big warm hug from your Dad sounds very precious Jane and makes me think of those special hugs, some of which I too remember today. I do like and appreciate hugs but your post raised memories from my counselling training in the early 90’s when it was all too obvious some people don’t. Unfortunately it was looked upon by some as a type of stigma – “what’s wrong with you if you don’t like hugs?!” As you might imagine a lot of personal group work was required and productive! Body language gives clues but isn’t always accurate so for those people who we don’t know well enough how about asking if they’re ok with hugging? Asking rather than assuming might help, unless they aren’t sure themselves which leaves us with experimenting 😏

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Ah, yes, counselling training would address these kinds of issues. I think you’re right on all counts, Margiran. There does seem to be a “what’s wrong with you?” stigma around not wanting casual hugs and touches. And asking rather than assuming is the reasonable way to go. Easier said than done for most, I’m afraid.

  6. boblorentson says:

    Love your observations on the political power touching. I’ve never heard it expressed before, but I’ve had the same thoughts.
    Important point you make about how not everyone likes to be touched. My wife was a Special Ed teacher and had a lot of experience with autistic kids. She always talked about how much she wanted to hug them but couldn’t.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Phew, I’m glad I’m not the only one who waits to see which politicians win the power struggle by arm-grabbing and back-patting! I’m pleased to know that Special Ed teachers are aware of all these challenging issues. Special Ed teachers are very special people.

  7. LA says:

    I used to hug all my friends…now I don’t. I miss the contact and way of showing who is special to me…

  8. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Ah yes the joys and sorrows of hugs.

  9. A very difficult subject indeed and I would risk a guess that most of us are not so good at reading the social clues around hugging. For myself it has usually been a family thing and I have been caught unawares a few times outside of that becoming quite uncomfortable.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It is interesting, isn’t it. There seem to be no easy answers as to why some people experience discomfort while others relish it. Don’t worry, Wayne. From me you will just get a warm smile! 😊

  10. Barry says:

    I’m hopeless at reading body language and facial expressions, and I dislike hugs intensely. I even avoid handshakes if possible. On the other hand I really like to cuddle with the wife, pets and young family members, but I start to feel uneasy by the time they reach six or seven. My siblings (and my parents before they died) have acknowledged that I freeze and become very tense and rigid when the hug me, but still they persist. They seem to think that, deep down, I actually appreciate a hug. I don’t.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Barry, thank you for this. You are speaking on behalf of many people who feel the same way and likewise suffer from even loved ones not getting it. I have no answers, but you are not alone.

  11. heimdalco says:

    I love all of this post. I come from a family of huggers & am president of a club full of them so I’ve missed hugs during the Time of COVID … but I do understand that some may not. The hugs that you mentioned that were special to you are the kinds of hugs that are different & done with very deep emotional feelings. Those are the best. In my hugging background I’m not 100% comfortable with hugs from strangers so there are hug limits. While I missed hugs during COVID, I think I missed noses & chins & lips much more. You could never be certain who was smiling at you with their eyes & sticking their tongue out at you behind the mask … which is pretty lousy “mask etiquette.” Thank you for sharing this post & keeping us thinking.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, GS. That must be quite a club you’ve got there, a club full of huggers! It’s a good point you make about what we lose when we can’t see people’s mouths because of masks. Hopefully not too many people have been sticking their tongues out behind their masks!!

  12. BernieLynne says:

    I am team hug all the way but I totally get that many are team no hug. Including my own daughter so I have become more astute at asking or reading body language. Good post as per your usual. Bernie

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Bernie. Very nice response. I knew you were a hugger from your posts (!), but not that you were sensitive to the response of others or the reason why. You have found a good approach.

  13. I so agree, Jane. A lot of people are good at reading the body language and signals of others, but some are not. It can be tricky, as we all bring our own preferences, habits, and biases to the table.

  14. You bet! And I suspect we like to hug and touch because we are primates. But you are right. There is much variation, and we should respect a person’s personal space.

  15. Sending you lots of virtual hugs Jane but wish we could in person!! I’m a hugger and married a non-hugger. When I get a real hug from him it almost makes me cry!! I’ve missed being able to hug but really haven’t been in true contact to hug so I made it through without any psychological damage (I think)!!!!!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, Rita, what a nice comment. And I agree, an in-person, warm hug between us would be such a special occasion. If my husband and I were 10 years younger we would have there by now! That says a lot for how close you can feel to someone just through blogging. Re huggers being married to non-huggers, the trade-offs that come from sharing your life with someone you can count on every single day make it worthwhile, as you well know. 💕

  16. What a lovely dream about your dad, Jane. Very sad to have lost him when you were so young. You needed that hug.

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