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The Slow Death of the ‘Hugger’

Everyone thinks COVID killed hugging, but we’d fallen out of its warm embrace long before the pandemic

It was after 200,000 people had died of COVID that I accepted a hug from someone who didn’t live in my household. On a cool November evening in L.A., the pandemic was still raging in hospitals nearby, but I was standing in the doorway of my friend’s apartment. Even though I knew the danger of hugs in the time of COVID, when he went in for one, I didn’t resist; after eight months, the embrace was instinctual.

Prior to the pandemic, it was an accepted fact that America was a nation of huggers. We hugged to say “hello”; we hugged to say “goodbye”; our politicians hugged; and there was an “I’m a hugger” personality type. To that end, some wondered if the pandemic was deadlier in the U.S. than in Asian countries because of our insistence on hugging. In December, the World Health Organization went as far as to issue a warning directly to Americans — that we should “avoid those hugs” during the holiday season.

As the end of the pandemic inches closer, there’s talk about whether or not we’ll return to our hugging ways. And if so, how we might hug safely. But these sorts of questions are being asked under the wrong pretext. In fact, it may surprise you to find out that Americans, despite our reputation, aren’t nearly as inclined to hug and touch each other as our culture would have you believe. 

In the past year alone, more than 250 reporters have contacted Tiffany M. Field to talk about the ramifications of living through an era starved of human touch. Field is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, where she studies the effects of touch therapy at all stages of life, from newborns to senior citizens. “I’m getting five calls a week,” she tells me. “I’d say one-third of them are from British countries — New Zealand, Australia and U.K. — and the other two-thirds are from the U.S.” 

But, she continues, “I don’t think we’re aware of how much Americans were a non-touching culture before COVID.” Along those lines, she notes that concerns around the slow death of “the hugger” began in 1998. That year, she and her colleagues observed 40 teens at McDonald’s restaurants in Paris and Miami to assess the amount of touching and aggression at play during their peer interactions. The American adolescents, according to Field, spent less time “leaning against each other, stroking, kissing and hugging than did the French students.” In lieu of touching, the American teens instead showed more self-touching and aggressive verbal and physical behavior.

The findings echoed observations anthropologists have made in the past while observing tribes in New Guinea. “There were two tribes living next to each other and the tribe that was physically affectionate with each other was non-aggressive, while the tribe that wasn’t physically affectionate was filled with headhunters,” Field explains. She goes on to suggest that touch deprivation could help explain why CDC statistics on young adult male homicide in the U.S. is off-the-charts.

In more recent history, Fields points to the #MeToo movement as another moment when “hugger” culture was re-evaluated. When people were (justifiably) calling out hugs that they didn’t want, some started to think about “reading all kinds of non-verbal cues” before approaching someone physically. “People have actually asked me, ‘What do you do now?’” Field tells me. “‘Do you ask permission?’ How awkward is that? If you want to naturally greet someone, you’re not going to ask them permission.”

Moreover, long before COVID consecrated the fist bump as part of our haptic lexicon, Field says “we saw a lot of elbow bumping amongst young people going on. Then, during the beginning of COVID, people were quite delighted with that, maybe because it was a new form of greeting.”

It helps too that the sort of “hugging” that once dominated American culture was, per Field, “not very satisfying” to begin with. “The French bear hug,” she says. “We Americans A-frame hug — shoulder’s kind of surround each other, but the feet are way out at the end, into an A.” 

Whatever the reason, Yvonne Shevnin, owner of the Snuggle Salon, which prior to the pandemic provided one-on-one snuggle sessions for about 500 clients, has the sense that despite all of the touch deprivation during quarantine, her clientele is unlikely to “come back in droves.” “At least not until we have a better understanding of the science around vaccines and the variants and what our safety level is,” she tells me. (Which is something people already seem to be thinking about: Since the holidays, Google Trends data shows that searches for “can you get COVID from a hug?” are on the rise.)

For what it’s worth — and I realize this is a sample size of one and that I come from a Persian family where such an embrace is as vital as air — I could still use a good hug after all of this time in isolation. (No disrespect meant to Field, who I am sure is right about the overall trend.) Which is probably why I gave in so easily to my friend back in November, despite the fact that over the last 12 months I’ve trained myself to cross the street whenever I notice another person approaching. Maybe that doesn’t say so much about America or Americans (again, Field is the expert here). But it definitely says something about the human condition.