Sure, baking banana bread with my mom was fun, but one of the biggest thrills I’ve had during the pandemic was seeing an old acquaintance from high school at the grocery store. Normally, this kind of unexpected social situation would make my stomach drop, leading to a quick power-walk to any other aisle. But with my mask on and six feet between us, I felt calm. I waved and smiled with my eyes because I knew that a sticky clasp of hands or an uncomfortable hug was out of the question.
During that glorious moment on the frozen aisle at Trader Joe’s, I realized that COVID-19 regulations had finally freed me from unwanted physical contact with acquaintances and strangers. While we focus on the pandemic taking away joys like concerts and traveling, it’s also saved us from having random people invade our personal space. As more of us become vaccinated and move past this horrible time in history, let’s maintain one aspect of pandemic life: the normalization of contactless greetings.
Physical affection, after all, is not normalized individually. I’m part of a family that is not big on physical touch. There weren’t cuddles from my mom before bed, or kisses on the cheek from my brother on my birthday. And that was normal. While my lack of touch growing up obviously shaped who I am, it’s never bothered me. But because I don’t receive hugs from my relatives on the regular, getting one from someone I barely know is panic-inducing.
Licensed counselor and professor Suzanne Degges-White explains in Psychology Today that “our tendency to engage with physical touch — whether hugging, a pat on the back or linking arms with friends — is often a product of our early childhood experiences.”
Indeed, I’m not alone in my distaste for hugs. In fact, on a recent episode of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” when a lady asks if she can hug Kourtney Kardashian, the reality star looks at her directly and says, “No.” I have never felt more understood. Kourtney explained that she’s not “affectionate with just anybody” because, like me, her family wasn’t touchy-feely when she was little. Yet, she added that she’s “super cuddly” with her boyfriend. I relate to this because it’s not that I never like touch. I love hugging, but only when it’s consensual.
The dislike that Kourtney Kardashian and I share for hugs isn’t deeply rooted. However, for some people, aversion to touch is much more complex. Degges-White points out that a lack of self-confidence, social anxiety, body issues, unusual fears and past experiences of negative touch can all factor into why a person doesn't want a hug. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider and respect the fact that not everyone likes to be touched.
But unfortunately, casual contact is making a comeback and it’s making me a nervous wreck. Just last week, I was saying goodbye to a woman I’d known for less than an hour when she leaned in, said “I’m a hugger” and squeezed me tight. As our bodies awkwardly smushed together, I winced and wished the blissful days of waves and head nods could last forever. For non-huggers like me, the world felt safer when I could go out in confidence that I wouldn’t be touched. Now that mask restrictions are being lifted, hugs and handshakes aren’t necessary. A simple smile says it all.