I was in my 20s when I taught myself how to hug. Warm and consistent physical affection wasn’t a cornerstone of my upbringing. I remember watching other little girls hug each other at the bus stop or in the school yard, and feeling alienated from displays of affection that seemed to come so easily to others.
During particularly vulnerable stretches of childhood, watching others participate in this social convention left me feeling anxious. I’m now an adult who finds the concept of casual touch, such as hugging and shaking hands, odd and uncomfortable.
Watching me move in for a hug is like watching two people attempt a high-five only to sail past each other, their awkwardness on parade. When someone catches me off guard while swooping in enthusiastically for an embrace, I seem as affectionate as a tree limb. And sometimes I’ll hug too tightly, my meter for these things being completely off kilter.
The same goes with handshakes. Growing up, I’d always been told that my grip was too weak and hesitant. I was advised by a college instructor to apply some confidence and assert myself. When I put his instructions to use at the end of my first big job interview, my prospective employer responded with a loud “Ow!” and was left wringing her wrist as though she’d shaken it loose from an alligator. (I got the job, but we never shook hands again.)
Since last year, though, the pandemic has unshackled me from the casual touches that define interpersonal communication for most people. I notice this freedom most when I run into friends and colleagues in public spaces. With our safety reliant on keeping a physical distance, my anxieties about touch are no longer on my mind. Hugging and casual contact, for the time being, remain socially unacceptable, so I can finally relax.
The truth is that not everyone wants a hug. Yes, hugs can certainly be lovely. But respect for physical boundaries is a basic human right, and the awareness of them that the pandemic has raised shouldn’t be discarded once it’s over. Post-quarantine, our sensibility to physical space and keeping our distance should remain.
After all, our perspectives on personal space are cultural, according to studies conducted across the past decade. Furthermore, as pointed out by Suzanne Degges-White, an expert in counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University, there are a number of reasons why a person might experience severe aversion to being touched, often stemming from upbringing. “Our tendency to engage in physical touch— whether hugging, a pat on the back or linking arms with a friend — is often a product of our early childhood experiences,” she says.
It certainly was for me. I remember the first time I hugged another child in front of my mother: I was in the eighth grade, and we ran into one of my schoolmates on a walk. I hadn’t seen him in several days, and he roller-skated up to me and wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. When he skated away, my mother said with contempt, “What’s with the hugging?” Her reaction haunted me for years to come.
Much earlier on, I had a grandfather with a particularly peculiar way of saying hello and goodbye. When I’d lean in for a kiss, he’d bite my nose. I can still feel his scratchy mustache stinging my skin. He got a kick out of my reaction (typically, to burst into tears). It’s hard not to be leery of touch when that’s how you were introduced to it.
For others, aversion to touch might be rooted in social anxiety, low self-esteem, body issues, fear and trauma. For them, the physical distance requirements brought about by the pandemic came as a welcome relief. They’re no longer awkwardly submitting to social conventions that make them uncomfortable for the sake of making others happy.
Whatever the reasons for a person’s lack of ease with physical touch, they all should be respected — and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to offer basic consideration for the personal histories that people carry over into their interactions with others.
I probably sound like an antisocial curmudgeon. Please trust that I’m not. It’s simply that casual touch is not likely to ever come naturally to me. I’m saddened, sometimes, when I think about the reasons for that, but the research shows that I’m far from alone in my discomfort, which is why many of us welcome the idea that the pandemic may have brought an end to displays of physical affection between friends — and, more importantly, work colleagues and other acquaintance-level associates.
While I long for the day that the pandemic will disappear like a thief into the night, I fervently hope that this deeper respect for physical boundaries stays with us.