From the early 19th Century to the end of the 20th, the sure-fire way to make Britons feel awkward was to embrace them. Much hilarity was had by Europeans feeling us assume a living rigor mortis the moment they put their arms around us. Like headlamp-hypnotised rabbits we would freeze in the confusion of emotions not knowing the correct form, feeling let down by a lack of protocols for the situation and, of course, a strange feeling inside that it actually feels quite nice.
“Embrasse moi!” says the open armed Breton to which the buttoned up emotionally repressed stiff-upper-lipped Briton can only reply, “I think you’ll find its pronounced ‘Embarrass Moi.’”
The hug is a prehistoric meme, a socially constructed behaviour passed down through generations, altering as society changes. The physical drawing of someone close to you was always a demonstration of trust. “I will share your germs as if you are one of my family.” And, if someone wanted to stab you in the back, you were giving them every opportunity.
After the Industrial Revolution it became a victim of society’s neediness for social boundaries and to codify public behaviour; apparently to give the aristocracy a condescending laugh and a way to distinguish the nouveaux who, without the studied knowledge of etiquette, would never be allowed into the true upper classes despite their brass. Hugging was something filthy, or worse, foreign, while the polite bow or the slightest touch of the hand was all that was necessary.
Few will forget the strained attempt David Cameron made to demonstrate caring Conservativism politicising the embrace in his Hug-a-Hoodie campaign. But one of the more delightful things that emerged from the 2020 US election (You, dear reader, have the advantage over me: I write this before, but you’re reading it afterwards) was signs that American genius in political storytelling was not actually dead; all thanks to some hugs.
As the campaigns came to a head, almost all of Joe Biden’s publicity videos, and many photos, showed him hugging or embracing someone. And you just know that, woefully short of popular policy ideas and representing the party that may well have to introduce a hated lockdown and raise taxes, some very smart people got together and asked: “can we just think of a gesture, something we can show our candidate doing that Trump could never do without seeming creepy?” As it turned out, the answer was the same gesture that all of us, the entire Covid-wracked world, are longing to do. Hug. To hold someone we love. Win or lose, Biden’s publicity people hit the right note. Biden hugged the stammering kid while Melania pulled away from Trump’s awkward fondling; and no one could witness Trump kissing Ivanka without remembering his boast that if he weren’t related to her he’d be dating her.
Biden even did a photoshoot for Popular Mechanics which featured a black and white image of him kissing his errant son Hunter. The unfortunate Trump supporter who tweeted the image with the caption: “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” became in an instant internet meme as thousands reposted with witty ripostes. What father wouldn’t want to be able to kiss their child? At any age. It was almost as if the Biden Campaign had planted these images to bait the right. If so. Genius.
For a country with such a short history, America always seems to be wrestling with its past, including its puritan roots. BC, Before Covid, hugging and kissing as a greeting had been on the rise there, and here, with the millennial generation adopting it far more widely than previous generations. “A measure of how rapidly the ritual is spreading” said a 2009 The New York Times article with almost Salem-like suspicion, “is that some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in. And schools from Hillsdale, N.J., to Bend, Ore., wary in a litigious era about sexual harassment or improper touching — or citing hallway clogging and late arrivals to class — have banned hugging or imposed a three-second rule.”
We have no idea to what extent Covid, and our strategies to cope with it, will have long term on community mental health, especially for the young people living through this. Will this create a generation of children who struggle with intimacy as adults? We had already given them phone screens to put up between themselves and others before the virus, and then came the Perspex screens.
And what will we lose if hugging is lost for another generation? A 2015 Carnegie Mellon University study found people who perceived greater social support were less likely to come down with that coronavirus, the common cold and, they said, the effects of hugging explained 32% of that beneficial effect.
Hugging releases oxytocin, known as “the bonding hormone” because it promotes attachment in relationships, especially prevalent in mothers and their new-born babies. Higher oxytocin levels are associated with lower cardiovascular and sympathetic nervous system reactivity to stress. It’s also found to diminish inflammation following acute stroke and cardiac arrest. A 2005 study of premenopausal women found that those who got more frequent hugs had higher oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure than peers who didn’t get as many hugs.
And yet, I recently attended a meeting, no hugging, no touching, four of us socially distanced, three of us wearing masks. Within a week we had all diagnosed positive for Covid-Sars-2. The effects of the virus were various and not pretty, but far worse was the guilt. I came down first so I’m sure it was me who brought it to the table. So then, when you start to think that just your presence in a room could hurt or even kill, the argument against intimacy becomes compelling. For the moment then we will just have to live with the dream Huggin’ Joe was selling. One day we will be able to throw our arms around other people, draw them close, feel their chest against ours, their hands on our back, their strength, their breath, their physical essence and just not kill them.
This article first appeared in print in