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.
Macron 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.
Image 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.