I was 20 when I taught myself to hug. Warm and constant physical affection was not the cornerstone of my education. I remember seeing other little girls kissing at the bus stop or in the schoolyard, and feeling distant from the expressions of affection that seemed to come so easily to others.
During particularly vulnerable times of childhood, watching others participate in this social convention left me feeling anxious. I am now an adult who finds the concept of relaxed touching, such as hugs and handshakes, strange and uncomfortable.
Watching me move for a hug is like watching two people attempt a high-five only to pass each other, their awkwardness in parry. When someone catches me off guard by enthusiastically diving for a hug, I seem as affectionate as a tree branch. And sometimes I’ll be too strong in my arms, my counter for these things being completely out of sync.
The same goes for handshakes. Growing up, I was always told that my grip was too weak and hesitant. A college instructor advised me to be confident and assertive. When I put his instructions to good use at the end of my first big job interview, my potential employer responded with a loud “Ouch!” and twisted her wrist as if she had shaken it from an alligator. (I got the job, but we never shook hands again.)
Since last year, however, the pandemic has freed me of the laid-back touches that define interpersonal communication for most people. I especially notice this freedom when I meet friends and colleagues in public spaces. With our security based on maintaining a physical distance, my worries about touch are no longer on my mind. Hugs and casual contact, for now, remain socially unacceptable, so I can finally relax.
The truth is, not everyone wants a hug. Yes, hugs can certainly be charming. But respect for physical boundaries is a basic human right, and knowing that the pandemic has increased shouldn’t be ruled out once it’s over. After quarantine, our sensitivity to physical space and to keeping our distance must remain.
After all, our perspectives on personal space are cultural, according to studies conducted over the past decade. Additionally, as Suzanne Degges-White, an expert in counseling and counselor training at Northern Illinois University, pointed out, there are a number of reasons why a person may experience a severe aversion to being touched, often due to of his education. “Our tendency to engage in physical contact – whether it’s hugging, patting on the back, or tying arms with a friend – is often the product of our early childhood experiences,” she says.
It was definitely for me. I remember the first time I kissed another child in front of my mother: I was in eighth grade and we passed one of my classmates on a walk. I hadn’t seen him for several days, and he rollerbladed up to me and wrapped his arms around me in a bear hug. When he walked away, my mother said contemptuously, “What is the hug?” His reaction haunted me for years.
Much earlier, I had a grandfather with a particularly peculiar way of saying hello and goodbye. When I leaned in for a kiss, he bit my nose. I can still feel his scratched mustache pricking my skin. It kicked in my reaction (usually, breaking down in tears). It’s hard not to be wary of touch when that’s how it’s been presented to you.
For others, aversion to touch can be rooted in social anxiety, low self-esteem, bodily issues, fear, and trauma. For them, the physical distancing demands brought on by the pandemic have been a welcome relief. They no longer clumsily submit to social conventions that make them uncomfortable to make others happy.
Whatever the reasons for a person’s lack of fluency with physical touch, they all need to be respected – and it doesn’t take a pandemic to offer basic consideration for the personal stories people pass on in their interactions with them. others.
I probably look like an anti-social scolder. Please believe that I am not. It’s just that a laid back touch will probably never come naturally to me. I am sometimes saddened when I think about the reasons for this, but research shows that I am far from alone in my discomfort, which is why many of us welcome the idea that the pandemic may have ended. at the shelves. of physical affection between friends – and, more importantly, between co-workers and other associates at the level of acquaintance.
While I long for the day when the pandemic disappears like a thief into the night, I fervently hope that this deeper respect for physical limits will stay with us.