I should have seen it coming. But I was relaxed, enjoying the company of my friends in the sun. Then, as we were saying goodbye, a friend leaned in and gave me a full-body hug. “I’m doing hugs! I’m double jabbed,” she announced. It’s not that I wasn’t glad that she wanted to give me a squeeze; it’s that I didn’t think we were at that stage yet and, if I’m honest, I’ve got used to just waving or miming some ironic air kisses. With my ear pressed uncomfortably to her cheek, I remembered why I have not missed hugging.
As we return to socialising, a division is opening up. Hugging is on the horizon again - the government has hinted it will be allowed (a sentence I never thought I’d say) from 17 May. But Londoners have always been early adopters and already the city is split into the huggers and those who just don’t miss it. Michael Gove has said that “friendly contact” is something the government wants to see (another sentence I never thought I’d say) but I am not so sure.
I know it’s emotive – rejecting a hug has consequences (I saw a woman in the street crying hurt tears and asking her teenager why she was being so glacial). Perhaps we just need to get used to it again. After all, not all hugs are equal. For every joyful display of physical contact, there are hug fails and people who see being a “hugger” as part of their identity. They have fetishized it and they may own a “hug in a mug” cup. But it doesn’t always work. We are spoilt for choice with photos of awkward celebrity hugs – see Ellie Goulding clinging onto her ex Ed Sheeran in 2014 and the Instagram hashtag celebrities in hostage situations.
I’ve had plenty of ones that make me squirm when I remember them – when one person hangs on for too long or worse, they smell! Then there are non-consensual hugs, from people who don’t understand boundaries. Watch out for when they give you back hugs, where they sneak up by stealth and embrace you before you can see them. I firmly believe that colleagues should not hug. There is the potential for too much boundary blurring, it’s easier to just have a blanket ban and get your hug fix elsewhere.
Scientists are also yet to be convinced. Caroline Noakes, a specialist in airborne infections at the University of Leeds says you can hug those who have been double vaccinated but don’t hug too freely. If you do, avoid being face to face. Or just say all this as an excuse not to hug? Noakes also says wearing a mask can help but tbh if you have to do this should you really be hugging at all?
Until now, it has felt easier to submit to the hug than to protest but as we emerge into our old lives, I am going to try hard to only hug on my terms.