When Stevi Stephens was 5 years old, her grandmother bent down for a hug, and Stephens wondered if stepping on her foot would make her stop.
As a baby, her mother told her, Stephens cried when anyone held her; later, as a married woman, she used to get up and change sides of the bed multiple times each night when her husband would scoot over in his sleep to put an arm around her. “He was like a heat-seeking missile,” she says.
Don’t misunderstand: “I had a great sex life,” Stephens, now 76, clarifies. But Stephens’s attitude toward being hugged hasn’t changed. With another person wrapped around her, she feels restrained, uncomfortable.
Stephens, a retired anthropologist, lives in a small co-op of restored fishermen’s huts on Vancouver Island with about nine other people. “Nobody’s ever tried to hug me here,” she says. And for Stephens, the past 14 months of social distancing – and the freedom from almost any hugs at all, even from her two grown children – has been blissful.
Ever since coronavirus vaccines became widely available to the general population, it’s been evident in parks, restaurants and homes throughout America: Arms across your back are back. Grandparents are hugging grandkids again. Friends are hugging friends. Even epidemiologists, a notably cautious bunch, are hugging. For many, the return of hugs has been a welcome step toward the return of normalcy.
Others, though, have been dreading this moment for a long time. In the frenzied, joyous rush to make up for a year of lost embraces, it’s easy to lose sight of people like Stephens, who cringe at the thought of having to endure a whole separate human body enveloping them with little to no prior notice. Personal-space enthusiasts are sad to see their year of living huglessly come to an end – even as they hold onto hope that some pandemic distancing habits might stick.
There are reasons so many humans feel comforted by hugging. Like a massage, it “involves stimulation and pressure receptors, and when that happens, the whole nervous system slows down and stress hormone is reduced,” says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Still, for some, hugs induce stress more than they relieve it. When Sam Zelinka, a federal-government research scientist based in Madison, Wis., gets a hug from anyone other than his wife or kids, he gets the same feeling as when a stranger stands too close to him. And while Zelinka, 38, isn’t about to “spray paint a T-shirt and march in the streets yelling about no hugs,” he’s not exactly looking forward to one from anyone but his parents.
“The people that hug me, I’m like, faced into their chest,” says Shantal Martin, a 27-year-old opera singer and influencer, who’s about 5-foot-2. When she left New York City in August to visit her family in Barbados, she found herself relieved at her relatives’ cautious distance in greeting her. “I was like, ‘This is great. I’m not being smothered by any of my aunts’ perfumes? Perfect.’ “
Brooke Todd, a 24-year-old social worker in Stroudsburg, Pa., tends to tense up when someone moves to hug her, and she didn’t totally make sense of how much calmer her social life had become during the pandemic until last summer. “It took a few months, but suddenly I was like, ‘Oh, this is nice. I don’t look like a jerk all the time for not wanting to hug someone.’ “
Certain kinds of people tend to dislike being touched or embraced, Field notes: some children and adults with autism, for example, as well as many survivors of sexual assault, such as Todd. Plus, Field says, the #MeToo movement prompted lots of people to raise a quizzical eyebrow at hugs in the workplace. “I think that even before covid, hugging was already going out.”
Lizzie Post, a co-president of the Emily Post Institute, made the same observation while writing the 100th-anniversary edition of her great-great-grandmother’s famed manners guide, due out next year. In addition to new guidance on Zoom baby showers and stating one’s pronouns, her first draft of the manuscript contained a long, impassioned section about when it’s appropriate to hug.
“I was going on a tear about, like, how hugs are such a physical violation of your entire body, and how to just bowl someone over is completely, like, the worst kind of rude. We toned it down so much,” Post says with a laugh. Going forward, Post says, she’ll be advising against hugs when meeting someone new, and encouraging the hug-wary to firmly but politely decline any hug (“I’m just not ready for hugs yet,” “You know, I’m not that wild about hugs”) before moving on quickly to express enthusiasm about encountering the person who’s initiated it (” . . . but I’m so glad to see you!”).
Many in this story hope the pandemic will be an opportunity to replace hugs with something less intimate. The fist bump, for example, has all the friendly informality of a hug, but without one whole body glomming onto another. Zelinka admires the bow that’s common in Asian cultures: “It’s a way to acknowledge someone else without, like, exerting yourself on another person,” he says.
For Stephens, the first hug of the post-pandemic, happy-reunion era is still a long way off. When she spoke to The Washington Post, British Columbia was under another lockdown, and she had no plans but to continue staying home wearing sweats, only leaving the house to volunteer for Meals on Wheels or make a masked-up, distanced trip to the farmers market. Describing her schedule, she sounded content, even relieved.
Todd, however, has already weathered that first hug. Earlier this month, her friends gathered together for the first time in over a year, and Todd admits she was so thrilled that she let them sweep her up – momentarily – into a group hug.
“I didn’t mind it. I’d have preferred we didn’t, but I can adjust,” she says. Then she laughs. “But longer than five seconds, I’m done.”