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Over Easy: Not everyone welcomes hugs with open arms

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/22/2021 12:27:15 AM
Modified: 5/22/2021 12:27:12 AM

As the pandemic eases and we remove our masks — now or maybe later — another great social question is on the horizon. Will hugging make a comeback when we are all healthy and risk-free? Is there about to be a hugging boom?

Umm, let me fret about that a bit.

A recent Washington Post article sounded the alarm. “Hugs are coming back. Not everyone is thrilled,’’ the headline deadpanned. Those who are thrilled are said to include grandparents, little kids and good friends. “Even epidemiologists, a notably cautious bunch, are hugging,’’ it claimed. Hugging epidemiologists? Next thing you know they’ll be slow dancing!

But then there are what the article called “personal space enthusiasts” — I love that phrase — who may be dreading the days and hugs to come. One woman, a retired anthropologist, shared that when she was a girl and her grandmother gave her a full grandma hug, she “wondered if stepping on her foot would make her stop.” A research scientist said that when he gets a hug from anyone except his wife and kids, he feels the same way he does when someone stands too close. A 5-foot-2 opera singer and “influencer” said “the people that hug me, I’m like, faced into their chest.” That’s not where she wants to be.

I did not grow up in a hugging family. I don’t recall that there was any rule against it, but I think my parents would have reserved such a thing for winning the Nobel Prize, or coming home after seven years adrift at sea.

I was OK with that. As a quiet child who closely observed humanity and was often not impressed, I thought we would be better off if we kept more to ourselves.

When I was in middle school, the Catholic Church, which celebrated Mass in Latin, switched to English. And then the Church wanted us to offer the “sign of peace,’’ a handshake, often to strangers. It was a crisis of faith. The prospect made me so nervous I worried through the Gospel and my hands sweat. I wonder if any of those strangers suspected I had been wrapping fish in my pew.

But you get used to anything, or you go into therapy. My hands dried out over time. It was only when I was an adult that I confronted a greater test. In some churches it has become common to go beyond the handshake to a full-on hug. Honestly, I’d rather not, but I became a reactive hugger out of necessity.

Sometimes, I must confess, I burrowed in the middle of a pew so huggers-on-the-go couldn’t reach me from the aisles. Sometimes I quickly offered preemptive handshakes before a hug could commence. I should have asked for a hug-free seating area, but the thing about being a hugging skeptic is that you feel like you might be missing out on something true and essential. The huggers have the upper hand.

My wife, Dede, told me as I was writing this that “there is nothing sweeter than a hug from a child.” I can see that. They are hugging from their core, their soul, without the complexities that come from bruising years in the company of humans. If they like you, they really like you, and that’s all there is to it. Every adult relationship is a Rube Goldberg contraption, leading to ends either good or bad.

If you Google “Is hugging good for you?” the internet will assert that it is. Some say you need four hugs a day, others eight or more. “Good grief,” my inner introvert responds. The Cleveland Clinic, an actual reputable source, says research suggests a hug releases a “feel-good” chemical; strengthens your immune system; and reduces a stress hormone, your blood pressure and heart rate.

But do unwanted or bungled hugs do the opposite? How about when huggers hang on too long, almost to the creepy edge? What if you nearly conk heads? Do they increase “feel-bad” chemicals, or “feel-stupid” ones? I am, as they say on the internet, asking for a friend.

All this brings to mind the words of a “running doctor’’ I read decades ago during a running boom. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” he assured beginners (and the untalented, who nevertheless could benefit from doing something healthy).

If you want a hug from me, you’re probably going to have to ask for one, and it’s not going to be the “Best. Hug. Ever.”

If you want to give me a hug, go ahead, but it may be a little like hugging a telephone pole.

Do you need a socially awkward hug? I’m game.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at

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