When the vaccine has been fully distributed and the exhausted scientists give us permission to stop thinking about the world in six-foot increments, I pray for gorgeous pandemonium: cashmere tracksuits on the Met Gala red carpet, whole friend groups sharing a single lollipop, parties where introverts feel free to leave the moment they feel like it. My dream for this second Roaring '20s is a decade of moral reckoning and real solutions from government leaders, as well as the fleshy, decadent ecstasy of billions of people who came close to death and survived.
I do not dream of the return of hugs.
I want to be clear: I am not anti-hug. I recognize that for more people than not, hugs make life worth living. Scientists say physical touch is not just a desire but a human need, and hugging, specifically, has been shown to lower cortisol maybe even impact cardiovascular health. Most people I speak to, when asked what they most miss right now, name one person in their life who they want to hug more than anything.
Engineers are building hugging robots, hospital staffs have created COVID-safe hug zones for isolated patients, even Queen Elizabeth II, who doesn’t strike me as the touchy-feely type, told her country this week that for many people, “all they really want for Christmas is a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand.” Early in quarantine I spoke to a woman who had been completely alone in her apartment for over a month, totally solitary except for trips to the grocery store. “I would pay money for a hug,” she said.
I’m not against hugs. I’m against hugs as a social expectation, a default greeting option as ubiquitous as handshakes. Hugging is a meaningful way of showing all kinds of affection. Hugging is also upright cuddling. Not everyone wants to do it with you, and they shouldn’t have to.
If I survive a pandemic, I don't want to continue to submit to the unspoken rule that if anyone puts their arms around you, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “No thank you.” Hugging is something a lot of people love, and that’s great. A lot of people love mustard, but you are not allowed to carry some around on your finger, and then insert your finger in your friend's mouth at book club. It shouldn’t be your assumption that every person who comes in your path is okay with being clutched to your chest.
At work, at parties, when meeting for the first time, down with the perfunctory hug. Down with one person sticking out their hand, and the other person launching forward and smothering that hand with their entire body. Down with creepy men using hugs as an intimate contact loophole. But also down with nice, non-creepy people hugging you when you don't feel like being hugged.
After COVID, we can create better boundaries. I hope that will lead to better, deeper hugs with the people you want to hug, and fewer mutually excruciating side-hugs.
“But I’m a hugger!”
That’s nice. I’m a fan of the 1988 complete symphonic recording of Les Miserables, but when I see you in the street I’m not allowed to pop earbuds into your head holes and blast “Do You Hear The People Sing.” It’s wonderful to be a person who expresses love through touch. But exclaiming “I’m a hugger!” and then not waiting for a response just feels antiquated when we know that different people experience affection differently. Touching other people is a preference. It can’t be your identity.
I don’t mean to suggest that that it’s sinister—in my experience, the “I’m a hugger” cohort is made up of the sweetest, most genuine people. I imagine they feel about hugs the way I feel when I pet dogs—I can actually feel my heart rate slowing down and my lungs taking in more air. But dogs have the option to squirm away. Humans usually don’t. After the pandemic, I think it would be cool for humans to have as much as a consent-based social contract around casual intimacy as dogs.
Some experts have wondered if the pandemic will spell the end of handshakes forever. Personally, I'm a fan of handshakes—I think it’s pretty funny that one test of masculinity when meeting for the first time is to stare into each others eyes and hold hands for a moment just to see how it feels.
Post-COVID greetings should be more varied and personalized, along the lines of consent—the courteous head bob for some, sucking on each other’s toes for those who want it. There’s nothing more beautiful than watching two people hug who clearly both want to be hugging. When the pandemic ends, there should be more of that—not a return to normal, but a rediscovery of what we really want out of being alive together.
Sometimes, that means holding a stranger, a crush, a member of your family, feeling the bass beat of another heart against your own chest. And sometimes that means standing a few feet away from another person, having a horrible conversation about the weather, and then being like, “Well, see ya!” and moonwalking away.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour