To hug or not to hug?
For the last year, we’ve been advised by the Centers for Disease Control to avoid physical contact with anyone not in our immediate household in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For those living alone, that meant the total absence of physical touch. Don’t shake hands, don’t hug anyone and definitely don’t kiss anyone.
The lack of physical touch has been trying, but many have gotten used to newer, more creative ways of greeting each other whether it’s a friendly wave from six feet away or an elbow bump. And though we still don’t have a pandemic end-date, as more Americans get vaccinated and are able to abide by the new CDC guidelines, we may be able to go back to hugging, shaking hands and cheek kisses soon. But should we?
The pandemic has taken the pressure off forced interactions and allowed us time to reevaluate boundaries around physical touch, experts say.
“It’s been helpful in the sense that people get to have a little more personal autonomy, you don’t have to follow that social contract that has been set up of how you are supposed to greet people,” says Ashely Peterson, a licensed psychotherapist.
Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School in San Francisco, says this social contract has caused some people to minimize their discomfort in the past “and just accept that physical greetings like handshakes and hugs because they are the perceived norm.”
“Many get the message that … it’s only a handshake and it would be impolite to offer anything otherwise,” Zaloom says, adding this idea is ingrained in us from childhood.
Kids are often told to give people hugs
It’s a common tale: An adult relative comes over and a parent tells a child to greet that person with a hug or a kiss. But as physical touch vanished during the pandemic, the pressure put on kids to physically greet people waned, and experts say its a practice we should stick with post-pandemic.
“We want our kids to trust their intuition, especially when it relates to body autonomy. We also want kids to have a sense of agency when it comes to their intuition and their bodies, which is an important part of their emerging sexuality,” Zaloom says.
Peterson agrees children should have personal autonomy, but she notes each household’s cultural background will play a role in whether the lack of emphasis on physical greetings sticks.
Physical greetings can vary greatly from culture to culture. In Sudan, it’s common to go in for a hug, two kisses on the cheek and end the greeting with a handshake (yes, all at once) while in Miami it’s not unusual to see people air kissing hello.
Peterson says now is a perfect time for parents to have that discussion with their kids and help guide them in making decisions about how they’d like to greet people. The idea is not to cancel hugs for relatives but rather to lessen the pressure put on kids; if the child wants to go for the hug, they should. But it should be up to them.
“Everyone doesn’t view children as being able to make their own decisions even though … they should definitely be able to say who they want to touch, hug and all those other things with their bodies.”
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Everyone has physical boundaries
Adults too are encouraged to be open and communicative about their physical boundaries.
Hugs, kisses and handshakes may not immediately disappear and they don’t have to, but we can be more cognizant of how people want to be treated and respect that, Zaloom says.
“Instead of thinking about if we should do away with this or add that, I think our energy is better spent shifting the culture to be more accepting of what feels acceptable to both people who are engaged in the greeting,” Zaloom says.
Though some people may be yearning for physical touch, the pandemic has shown us handshakes may not be the best remedy.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s Chief Medical Adviser, said in May 2020. “We’ve got to break that custom. Because as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory illness.”
Instead of handshakes, Zaloom suggests “an enthusiastic or meaningful verbal salutation, a bow, a head nod and smile, or drop a beat on your greeting and do a mini dance.”
Peterson says physical touch is important especially for people who rely on non-verbal validation or affection. Things like shaking someone’s hand while looking them in the eye show you’re listening and an embrace from someone you care about can be reassuring if physical touch is your love language.
“It’s the nonverbal communication that I think people miss as well, because now you’re not getting affirmed if people don’t say it. And if you’re not a person that is able to effectively communicate how you’re feeling, then you are able to rely on those nonverbal displays of affection,” Peterson says.
As important as physical touch is, she hopes the pandemic has allowed people to take a pause and think about how others may feel about touching.
“It would be helpful if (post-pandemic) we’re able to kind of recognize that we all don’t have to follow the exact same path of interacting with people,” Peterson says. “So if it’s something that you are looking forward to or something that you want to do, then yes, you should be able to do it.”