A few weeks after lockdown was lifted, I went to a gathering filled with cocktails, music, food and conversations with people I’d just met. It was exactly the scenario I’d dreamed about when I was trudging around my local park during the previous months of isolation. But blissful as this party was, it came with a very frustrating side order: non-stop, wall-to-wall, near-constant hugging.
Now I hate the coronavirus as much as the next person, but I really, really enjoyed the pandemic-induced lack of hugging. Back in the days of socially distant socialising, when someone offered me an embrace, I’d respond: ‘We’d better not.’ And then, feigning sadness: ‘Best to be safe.’
The truth is, I wasn’t thinking about safety for a second. I just absolutely hate being expected to hug people I’m not directly related to, or in a romantic relationship with. Truly, I don’t understand the appeal. Every single time I’m introduced to a group of people, it seems to be expected that we’ll lightly rub our bodies against each other to seal the deal. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to reach across a pub table or trample over someone else’s coat to reach for a hug when a handshake or a wave would have sufficed.
When I admit to disliking hugs, people look at me as though I’ve confessed to hating puppies or thinking that pizza is gross. But being anti-hugs is much more common than you might realise, and it certainly isn’t limited to misanthropes.
There are various neurological conditions that make disliking hugs more probable. But it’s also common in people who are neurotypical. According to a 2012 study in Comprehensive Psychology, how much you like hugs is often a family trait. If you were raised by huggers, then you’re likely to be one, too; if not, then hugging might be off the menu. But I’m from a tactile family and I’m massively social, so there’s no clear reason why I hate hugs. I just do.
Annoyingly, science does seem to be on the side of hugging. Research shows that human touch is important for our wellbeing, and that frequent hugging can help reduce blood pressure and stimulate oxytocin (sometimes called the cuddle hormone) in pre-menopausal women. Oxytocin is known to improve healing and lower your heart rate and stress levels.
But not all hugs are created equal. When it comes to romantic partners, I’m perfectly willing to spoon before falling asleep, or hold hands in the park. I’ll take a hug from my mum, or some other immediate family members. But saying hello and goodbye with a physical greeting is clunky, disruptive, arguably a bit unsanitary, and I’m convinced I’m not getting any oxytocin out of it.
As the world has started to open up again, I’ve found that people are extremely quick to forget about the two-metre rule. Earlier this year, when Michael Gove announced that hugging was legal again, I felt an internal shudder. Blissful months of not hugging people on introduction suddenly returned to the obligatory ‘One kiss or two? Ooo, we’re being French, are we!’ on arrival. So I’ve decided that I’m not going back to the old way of doing things. No more hugging for me.
These days, when I’m introduced to someone, I firmly stick my hand out and shake theirs. Or I wave, smile and say firmly (but sweetly), ‘I’m not a hugger’, if they make a move for it. Occasionally, I’ve been offered a Covid-friendly elbow bump, which is easily preferable to any other greeting, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, there have been people who’ve looked at me as though I’m unhinged but, ultimately, I think it’s worth it.
Much as I’m willing to laugh at myself for being anti-hugging, there’s a serious point buried in there. We should all get to choose who touches us and when, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying you’d prefer not to be.