My second-grade teacher was a hugger. Every time I completed a big chapter book she’d draw me to her ample bosom and praise my accomplishment. I loved it. I didn’t know it then, of course, but hugs and kisses release oxytocin into the system, lowering cortisol levels and providing an increased sense of trust.
Years later I parented my way through the teacher-scandal years. The number of high profile incidents involving inappropriate activities between teachers and students opened a new legal chapter about one of the simplest human behaviors, the desire to be touched and comforted. And there were many examples of grossly inappropriate behavior with often egregious consequences. The new normal for teachers became TOUCH AT YOUR OWN PERIL. A pat on the back, a hug for empathy, or the application of sunscreen on a field trip could jeopardize a teacher’s job. The Atlantic published one of the best overviews of the consequences of a “no-touch” policy and the science of touch in 2015.
Fast forward to #Metoo. It’s a multi-faceted movement with implications spanning worker pay, job equality, and empowerment, and represents a major step forward for women. And one clear outcome is that touching in the workplace is now considered just as questionable as it is in schools. There was a time when I thought nothing of the senior male executive who would politely straighten my bra strap (one of my sartorial trademarks) or helping my male boss straighten his pre-meeting wardrobe with a tuck of a shirt or collar. I was lucky I never felt uncomfortable. But the new workplace normal is that one person’s notion of touching as comfort is another person’s discomfort. Asking for permission to hug or touch is now a codified procedure. If there was any genuine spontaneity in the gesture, it is lost when you have to ask before you touch. Much easier not to touch at all.
Now, the denouement. Life with COVID-19 is the ultimate touchless state. Parents and caregivers are fretting about touching their kids. Grandparents are agonizing over distance relationships with grandchildren. You can’t even touch your own face, never mind anyone else’s.
We’re in uncharted territory where even a handshake or a high five is verboten. Fist bumps, elbow bumps, namastes, shoe kicks … we are each experimenting with how to simulate the high we get from normal touch. Just a few days ago I had to slap my wrists to remind myself not to succumb to the temptation of a hug. A few days later, it’s imprinted and normalized.
Touch is the first sense we develop. It develops in utero. And while we know that people survive without sight, hearing, taste and smell, it seems that touch is, at least to some degree, universal. As we reign in touch, we reign in exploration, communication, and comfort. We deprive ourselves of the biological benefits of a hug.
I am worried, even sad, that the effects of these imposed short-term behavioral changes may endure long after the COVID emergency is over. The taboo of touch will become de rigueur in post-COVID life. We are in an active boot camp for the new high-tech, low-touch life.
Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times, a high-tech conferences and events company, recently acquired by the Consumer Technology Association. Last week for Techonomy she wrote The World Wide Pause.