The hug is back.
“I hugged my parents for the first time in over a year,” my dentist told me the other day, and to my surprise her news brought tears to my eyes.
A year. She and her parents don’t live far apart geographically but for a year they hadn’t been able to touch. Now, because they’re all fully vaccinated, they’re liberated back into the old-fashioned body squeeze known as a hug.
I got a little misty again — and again my emotion surprised me — when a Chicago friend texted me a photo of her mother, who lives in another state, being hugged by her nephew. It wasn’t my hug, but I felt it, as if this sudden return to hugging has been a collective exhale, and we share each other’s relief.
“This is the first family she’s seen since Christmas 2019,” this friend reported, and the mere sight of her fully vaccinated mom in a physical embrace, body to body, breath to breath, made her cry. She, too, was surprised by her tears.
“Amazing how we don’t notice certain burdens until they ease up, isn’t it?” she said.
Not everyone, of course, has missed hugging during the pandemic’s enforced distancing. Those are generally people who describe themselves as “not the hugging type.”
“I’m glad not to have to hug anyone,” a man I know grumbled not long ago. “I hate hugging.” He claimed he’d rather wear a mask for the rest of his life than return to a world of rampant hugging. This guy was a proud misanthrope before the pandemic and has enjoyed having his anti-social tendencies legitimized by the restraints of COVID living.
But you don’t have to be a prolific, promiscuous hugger — I’m not — to miss hugging. It’s one of those ordinary comforts — like cafes and the gym — that we took for granted until it was taken away.
Now, as vaccinations proliferate and hugging makes a comeback, people excitedly share their hugging encounters the way they once shared tales of vacation. They write tributes to their “first hugs” on Facebook, post photos of their hugs on Instagram. There are stories of adult children at long last hugging their parents. Of grandparents hugging babies. Friends hugging friends. Brothers and sisters back in each other’s arms.
But with the return of hugging comes a more urgent version of an old dilemma: Do you need consent before you hug?
Some people would argue that even before the pandemic made touching a health risk, asking before hugging was appropriate, except with your closest people. I agree. But back in the pre-pandemic days, some hugs just happened, as spontaneous as a laugh, and that was part of their charm.
Then COVID-19 came. Hugs became potentially deadly. We lost the habit of the hello hug, the goodbye hug, the hug meant to comfort. And now that the fully vaccinated are free to hug again, hugs come with new social complications.
I hadn’t fully realized this until a few days ago when I went for a walk with a friend on the lakefront.
It was a warm day and people on the path and in the park had the jubilant air of inmates just released from the prison of Chicago winter. A woman I know cycled past, called my name, hopped off her bike. After we’d talked for a while — a conversation in which we both mentioned being fully vaccinated — she said, “Can I give you a hug?” I nodded. We hugged. She biked off and I walked on, glad that she’d asked first.
Before long, my walking partner and I ran into an old dear friend. In my excitement to see her for the first time in a year, I said, “Can I give you a hug?” Before she could clearly answer, but knowing she was fully vaccinated, I swooped in for the squeeze.
It was at that point that I realized: Especially in the age of COVID-19, and even among the fully vaccinated, hugging calls for consent. I wasn’t sure she’d given it. I texted her later to say I hoped my impromptu hug hadn’t freaked her out. She wrote back to say no, she hadn’t minded and that “it was great to finally get a hug again.”
Still, both those encounters reinforced this bit of COVID etiquette: Hugging’s back, and that’s good, but, unless you have no doubt, ask first.