Hugs are back! But do you even want one?

People are excited to get close to loved ones, but are torn on embracing the casual social hug

By Nicole Karlis
Published May 18, 2021 11:33AM (EDT)

Kelly Shoul, an elopement photographer living in Denver, is fully vaccinated. While she is looking forward to returning to many aspects of her pre-pandemic life thanks to her vaccinated status, there is one pre-pandemic custom she's not looking forward to — being greeted by strangers and acquaintances with a hug. 

"I will always hug my closest friends, and family, that's just how I am. I love them and hugging them is something that always comes naturally when I see them," Shoul told Salon via email. However, Shoul said, over the years it's seemed as if everyone wanted a hug. "People I haven't seen in years, acquaintances, the mail man, and to be honest, it was getting to be a little much."

Shoul said a "simple wave," standing across from a person and not touching, has been a welcomed respite from a culture that had been increasingly embracing the hug as a form of casual greeting, which sometimes led to awkward and unwanted interactions.

"I am fully vaccinated, but I still don't want the virus, and this will keep me from hugging individuals who I know aren't vaccinated," Shoul said. "Which is nice [because] I probably didn't want to hug them in the first place."

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020, one of the first noticeable differences in everyday lives was how people greeted each other. In April 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believed that people should never "shake hands ever again," deeming some to believe the handshake was dead. Hugging, by that point, was also off the table due to coronavirus mitigation strategy recommendations like staying six feet apart from others. Many health experts speculated that both hugs and handshakes would be off limits for a very long time.

Yet now, nearly a year and a half later, 37 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and hugs and handshakes are no longer a serious health threat. Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, told Salon hugs are safe between fully vaccinated individuals, and even a low-risk activity for unvaccinated people, as long as the hug is short.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"People who are fully vaccinated, there's no COVID-19 related reasons not to hug people," Adalja said. "Even if they were not vaccinated, COVID doesn't transmit instantaneously like that, so if two unvaccinated people are hugging it's not likely to be a transmission event if it's transient."

Adalja said it depends on the unvaccinated person's "risk tolerance," but that a fully vaccinated person shouldn't fear hugging a vaccinated person or an unvaccinated person.

Jennifer Grizzle, a public relations consultant in Atlanta, told Salon via email she is already hugging people she knows now that she's vaccinated. But like Shoul, she isn't hugging strangers.

"But friends and family are getting hugs from me," Grizzle said. "I've always been a hugger."

Sociologist Amy Best emphasized to Salon there's a "cultural variance" when it comes to hugging in America, given the country's diverse population. In some cultures, touching another person — especially someone who isn't family or a close friend —is off limits for a variety of reasons. Sociologists and anthropologists consider hugging as a casual greeting a relatively new phenomenon in modern American culture.

"We can identify hugging at other historical moments among subsets of the American population, but for sure hugging as an activity emerged in the post war period," Best said. "And there are two things that really offered hugging as a more widespread practice, and one is just a kind of more egalitarian ethos that's defined the last part of the 21st century and late part of the 20th century."

Hugging, Best said, can be thought of as emerging after a time where there were many rules and rituals between groups of people who were perceived as unequal by societal standards. Hugging, in other words, can be seen as an act of defiance.

"Hugging and more physical contact generally is really tied up with status distinctions and status hierarchies, and many of those status distinctions have flattened over time," Best said. " And so hugging is more prevalent as a result of that."

Best added that hugging also likely emerged of American culture becoming less formal.

"We could look to like the rise of casual Fridays, for example, or the move to dispense with titles as modes of address," Best said. "We can see a broader pattern of informality that is expressed in how we greet each other, it's expressed in the way we dress, it's expressed in the way in which we engage in written correspondence."

There's also a case to be made about how "adolescent society" has infiltrated "adult society."

"Because we spend longer periods of time with adolescence than we used to — and I'm talking about before the 1920s," Best said. "That those kinds of cultural values are more firmly etched in our thinking."

Still, not everyone was on board with hugging before — many people felt uncomfortable feeling like they had to choose between accepting or rejecting a hug from someone they didn't want to embrace. When asked about what the future holds for hugging, Best said she believes it depends on if the pandemic can fully end or not, and if there will be future pandemics. Best said hugs are likely to stay for family members and close friends. Many people have turned to social media to post their first hug with a grandparent or family member since the beginning of the pandemic. Emotional videos of families reuniting are sure to cause tears. But whether or not hugging will be a normal way to greet  strangers and coworkers remains unclear.

"During COVID one of the things that was clear is that suddenly there was not a mandate to hug. In fact, you couldn't hug, and so it was really clear in terms of greeting strangers who maybe you actually didn't want to hug but felt compelled to. And gender politics are probably a part of that story," Best said.  "A lot is going to depend on whether or not we are able to tamper down on pandemics. COVID-19 is one pandemic, but there'll be more."

Still, there are many people on Team Hug. If anything, the lack of physical contact during the pandemic has made them realize what they've been missing. Robert Galinsky, a writer and producer in New York, told Salon via email that he's "totally comfortable hugging people and will do so in order to rebuild our human bonds that were stripped away by the pandemic."

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Covid-19 Hugs Reporting