The pandemic halted hugging. Can we ever embrace it again?

With the prospect of the further easing of pandemic restrictions, following Monday’s announcement of the government’s intention to relax social distancing rules in England on 19 July, I’ve been thinking about the return of the hug. After so long, greeting people has become a slightly awkward endeavour, with some going in for an embrace and others sticking to the raising of a hand or an ironic elbow bump, eyes rolling.

Of course, for some, the hug has never really gone away. “Did you hug your mum?” a friend and I asked each other, when we finally got to see them after the first lockdown. We both admitted a little bashfully that we had – our mothers had been alone throughout the pandemic. “But we were wearing masks,” my friend said: one of those sentences that didn’t exist before, that makes you feel a little nauseous if you study it too closely, much like the headlines about the return of physical contact.

I’ve been a sporadic hugger throughout all this, my willingness ebbing and flowing with infection rates and deaths – one of those tiring calculations balancing basic humanity and risk. Some of these hugs were spontaneous or covert, assumed to be illegal until we were told, “Well, actually, we only advised that you shouldn’t.” Sometimes you just can’t not, it turns out. The first time I hugged people not related to me, we had all greeted each other very politely, then we got drunk and hugged each other tight. It felt so good, but I spent the next week half-wondering whether I’d caught Covid. I hadn’t. I was lucky; or perhaps it was because these days when people hug, they often turn their faces away.

Before the pandemic, Britain was arguably one of the most untouched nations on Earth. In his famous coffee shop study, the psychologist Sidney Jourard observed how many times two people sitting together touched one another over the course of an encounter. In San Juan in Puerto Rico, the figure was 180; in London, it was zero. That was in 1966, and though times have changed, we are still less touchy-feely than other cultures.

So I find myself wondering what a return to physical proximity could look like, after months of maintaining an Austenesque distance from one another.

Will we all have become effusive huggers now that so many of us have been deprived of the comfort of physical touch? Or will the primitive parts of our brains continue to light up when a person approaches, arms outstretched, because we now associate physical contact with a deadly virus? I suspect it will be a mixture of both, with a fair amount of awkwardness thrown in.

I’ve already experienced several such moments, and seem to have found myself creating a sort of running tally, a hug quota. “I won’t hug you, because I hugged about 10 different people on my birthday,” I have said to some people. This sounds a bit as though I’m playing favourites, but really it’s just that the potential infection chain can get a little long.

As with anything to do with Covid, there will be those who say I’m massively overthinking this, and should just hug with abandon, and those who will be horrified that I hugged my mum at all – although they didn’t have to be there in the darkest hour in deadest winter in a park when I chose not to and instead stood there clasping her hands in mine, and cried afterwards.

Touch is the thing that comforts and sustains us. In the past year we have read moving testimony from those who have been deprived of it altogether, of the almost physical pain of “skin hunger”. And it makes sense: how do you comfort a crying infant? Touch. We retain that need. I recently interviewed the psychiatrist, author and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, and he stressed the importance of human touch in the healing of trauma, and what many people have endured this past 18 months can certainly be described that way.

I don’t know how touch will manifest if social distancing is lifted, but one thing I have noted is that people are more comfortable vocalising boundaries, and that can only be a good thing. Before the pandemic, there was a certain amount of hysteria about the “weaponisation” of touch in the wake of the #MeToo movement, mostly in the form of crotchety old men moaning that you couldn’t even touch a colleague on the knee these days without being dragged to HR. Well, now it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say, “Please don’t touch me”, albeit for a different reason.

Even before the pandemic, I tended to ask, “Can I give you a hug?” rather than just launching myself upon someone, child or adult. But I’ll be making an extra effort in future. After all, a desired hug is a wonderful thing.

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