Earlier in the pandemic, a friend reached out to hug me. I froze, unsure whether I wanted it. But by the time I had finished the thought, it was too late to do anything about it; I had been hugged. I was more shaken by the simple gesture than I expected; after months of isolating, hand sanitizing, and COVID testing, physical contact was a bridge I hadn’t been ready to cross.
That didn’t exactly prepare me for the deluge that was to come this spring. Not long after the CDC reported that over 150 million Americans had received at least one vaccination shot and positivity rates in my city of New York had dipped below 2%, I was hugged several times in just a week. People from different parts of my life descended upon me with open arms, clearly delighted to be able to squeeze another human being. Had I missed a memo? When had we decided that it was OK to hug again? It wasn’t that long ago that we were scowling at the maskless and joking about having sex through a sheet, was it?
It was impossible to be angry at them. The risk to my health was small — we’d all been vaccinated — and after more than a year of social deprivation, friendly embraces were not totally unwelcome. But I was puzzled at how quickly hugs had returned as a regular greeting, as if we hadn’t all painstakingly negotiated what we were comfortable with doing and what we had to do to ensure everyone was safe. Touch of any kind had been verboten — now, I guess, it’s coming back.
Disconcerted by the volume of confident hugs taking place, I asked BuzzFeed News readers for their thoughts on the subject. Lindsey (who, like many respondents, declined to share her last name), a 38-year-old from Minneapolis, said she was “more than ready” to hug. “Being deprived of touch (with the exception of my spouse) for over a year has made me desire more hugs and physical touch than before.”
Shira, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher from New York City, said it’s been hard not to hug her students, especially when they seek out comfort. “After I was fully vaccinated, I gave many, many, many hugs to all my students who wanted and needed them,” she said. “I think kids especially crave comfort and security, and a hug for little kids tends to make most things better.”
Others hadn’t been the biggest huggers prepandemic but changed their stance over the past year. “I hated hugs,” said Nikita Desai, of Washington, DC. “I'm really sensitive to physical touch [because of] sensory issues, so I generally avoided hugging people unless it was a close friend.” Recently, though, she hugged a few friends whom she hadn’t touched in a long time and found the experience “glorious.” “I'm still kind of a ‘hugs on my own terms’ person, but I'm way more pro-hugs than I was prepandemic. I have friends that I've maybe only hugged once that I just want to hug for like 10 minutes now.”
But some were reluctant. Sonia, a 37-year-old from Spring, Texas, said, “I've never been big into it. I've always tried to do a side hug thing to avoid the big display of affection.” For her, a “hello” and a genuine smile is enough. Joshua Holman, 40, of Havelock, North Carolina, has always hesitated when it comes to hugs. “I have autism,” he said. “This means I don't like being close to people.” And if anything, the pandemic has only exacerbated his aversion to hugging. “In fact,” he said, “the virus has made me scared to hug people and more cautious in interacting with people in general.”
And while hugs used to be the standard social greeting among her friends and family, given that not everyone is vaccinated, 34-year-old Emilee of Providence, Rhode Island, has adopted a variable strategy. “Now I feel a lot more careful and intentional about who I would hug, and when,” she said. “I would feel comfortable hugging someone that I am very close with and know well, [if I] know how they have been handling the pandemic, and when I know that we both are vaccinated.”
Trying to abstain from such a common practice can be challenging. Lyanne, a 30-year-old in California, said she hugs her husband and immediate family. “But anyone else, I’m OK,” she said. “Just going to use hand cues for greetings or use my words and try not to feel guilty about not wanting contact.” Peter, 45, from Westchester County, expressed his distaste more succinctly. “Stay the fuck away from me,” he said. (His greeting of choice? An air five.)
Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, says hugging is a hot topic. “With offices coming back,” she told me, her corporate clients have been asking her, “What do we do? How do we approach our clients? How do we approach each other? Are there ground rules?” Meier is working with companies to create guidelines about how to navigate this complicated territory once back in offices.
“Stay the fuck away from me,” he said. (His greeting of choice? An air five.)
That was exactly what I, a noncorporation, wanted to know. Could she tell me the rules? “Etiquette at the end of the day is about thinking of other people, and what makes other people comfortable, and what shows respect to other people,” she said. “In any kind of situation, social or business, you might have a certain comfort level about shaking hands or hugging — that doesn't necessarily mean the person you're meeting does.” Given that every individual’s preferences might be different, Meier said it’s all about communicating what you want. She suggested verbal methods (“Oh, you know, I’m going handshake free to be extra careful”), nonverbal methods (she has crafted two of her own: the Stop, Drop, and Nod, and the Grasp and Greet), or a text message ahead of time — for example, before a date, explaining that you’re just not ready for physical greetings yet. “People are going to respect that it's a personal choice,” she said.
COVID-19 has made us wary of traditional greetings that involve touch. But when moving forward without them, there are other risks. “I think there's a lot of fear,” Meier said. “Like, What if I don’t want to shake hands? Will that ruin a business deal? Will that destroy a relationship?” It’s true that when I told friends and colleagues I was only feeling so-so about hugging, I felt like the Grinch. The idea of declining an embrace in the moment, even equipped with tools like Meier’s to smooth over awkwardness, made me feel even worse.
We don’t know when the first hug happened, but the gesture has been around for millennia, at least. Sebastian Ocklenburg, a psychologist at Ruhr-University Bochum, pointed me toward the findings of a team of archaeologists in Italy: the “Lovers of Valdaro,” two human skeletons buried together in an embrace about 6,000 years ago. “In science, we refer to hugging as a form of nonverbal communication or social touch,” he told me. “It is a really fascinating form of behavior from a psychological point of view, as people show it in pretty much all sorts of emotional situations.” You might hug someone who’s sad, or use it as a greeting; it can even be a celebratory gesture. And as a species, we’re not alone in being huggers; Colombian spider monkeys have been observed to do it too.
Ocklenburg said that although hugging is underresearched, it has been shown to reduce the risk of catching a cold once exposed to the virus, reduce blood pressure, improve mood, and relieve stress. “I always found it somewhat strange how much research in the field [focuses] on verbal communication and neglects nonverbal communication, when social touch clearly is an important part of life for many people,” he said.
Not everyone around the world hugs, though. “It largely is a thing that is mostly used in North and South America, and some European countries,” he said. Gender also plays a role in whether someone’s comfortable with hugging: In Western societies, men engage in less social touch than women and, according to a paper Ocklenburg coauthored, “feel more psychological discomfort when embracing other men than when embracing women.”
Still, among many social circles in the US, hugging is common. Last year, when we were ascertaining risk factors and figuring out how the new coronavirus spread, the jury was out about whether hugs were safe. Yes, there are health benefits, but hugs also bring people into close proximity to each other. “The hug is not an isolated event,” Dr. Todd Ellerin, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Health Blog last June. “It’s where you are and how close you’ll be standing. It’s what you’ll be doing before and after.” His advice for hugging safely included staying socially distanced immediately before and after, masking up and looking in opposite directions, wearing a face shield for extra protection, and washing your hands afterward.
But now that vaccines are readily available in the US, the situation is a little different. According to the CDC, “risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection is minimal for fully vaccinated people” and “fully vaccinated people have a reduced risk of transmitting the coronavirus to unvaccinated people.”
It’s not safe for two unvaccinated people to hug each other, but between two vaccinated people, the risk factor of a hug has fallen, with some experts calling it “pretty safe.” (It’s not zero, though.) "Almost everywhere in the United States today for a vaccinated person, the risk is so low that it's reasonable to weigh the pleasure and the human dimension of the activity when deciding who and when to touch," Robert Wachter, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told USA Today in late May. If the hugger is vaccinated and the huggee is not, “the chance of spreading COVID-19 from one person to the next would be very small,” Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, told Everyday Health, but he also suggested both people be masked and that the hug take place outside.
The reason there is so much guidance about the topic is that plenty of people want to hug. They’re impatient to get back to it. The hug is tenacious: Beaumont Etiquette’s Meier doesn’t think we’ll ever see it go away completely. “Throughout history, we have seen physical touch come back — think about the bubonic plague, the  flu. It always does, no matter how many devastating [events] we have. We always go back to wanting that interaction.”
When I called Hilary Jacobs Hendel, she was in Big Sur on vacation. I could hear idyllic bird calls in the background, which only added to the soothing effects of her voice. Hendel is a psychotherapist, and when I explained my hug-related stress to her, she slid easily into practitioner mode. “Take a moment to slow down with me,” she said. “Feel your feet on the ground and take a couple of deep breaths. Imagine the kind of situation that brings up the anxiety and see if you can elicit a tiny bit of it.”
Hendel said she uses a tool called the change triangle to help clients who are distressed achieve a calmer state. In this model, inhibitory emotions (e.g., anxiety, shame, guilt) block core emotions (fear, anger, joy, excitement); in my case, anxiety was preventing me from understanding why I was feeling so antsy about hugs. So I closed my eyes, experiencing the now-familiar tug of panic. “Just tune into it,” Hendel continued, “almost as if you could reach the anxiety, or move it aside, to see what the underlying core emotion is, because anxiety is a kind of signal.”
First, there was fear. I had expected that: a reaction to the danger and contagion of COVID-19 that has taken root for so many of us over the past year. But it gave way quickly. To my surprise, rage took its place. I felt angry, I realized, that people weren’t asking for my permission or checking to see if I felt comfortable with being touched. The anger subsided too, and, to my shock, I recognized the smallest twinkle of excitement. I did want to hug! But only if I felt safe.
It did feel better to be able to name the emotions I was feeling. According to Hendel, core emotions evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to help people survive; they trigger a response in the body. “A fear reaction is running to safety; emotions like joy and love and excitement move us toward things,” Hendel said. What’s funny is that hugs can actually help with emotions like fear and anger. They release oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine and reduce levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.
In fact, hugs are so powerful that Hendel said even a “mental” hug can help calm the nerves. “If you hug or swaddle yourself and imagine a loving, wise person who loves and protects you hugging you for a minute or two, you’re going to get oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin flowing,” she said.
Everything she said made sense. Hugs really did feel good, if I just let myself remember that. Being so out of practice, I wondered if I’d be able to get back into the fray easily. Is there a science behind the perfect hug? I asked Madelon Guinazzo, cofounder and director of certification at Cuddlist, an “international cuddling service.” “It's kind of like saying, ‘Well, what makes a good meal?’” she said. “It’s different to each person. So part of it is being curious and understanding and not being judgmental.” Being in the moment is important, she said, because it creates a sense of security and trust. For her own part, she prefers a hug that involves full-body contact. “Taking your time having a deep inhale and exhale together,” she said. “Where the shoulders drop, you know?” It felt relaxing even just listening to her describe it.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a barbecue. Wings were caramelizing on the grill, a couple of dogs were play-fighting in the grass, and people were joking around, holding wineglasses and chilled beers. I spied a friend I hadn’t seen in months and she threw her arms wide open. Surprisingly, I was ready. We swayed from side to side like a pendulum, laughing and holding on for dear life. It was joyous and instinctive; I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. OK, that was pretty good, I thought. Then I let go. ●
This story has been updated to include a quote from Joshua Holman.