touching post-Covid19
March 26, 2020 4:23 AM   Subscribe

A relatively trivial covid19 question. Is the current crisis going to permanently change our attitudes and conventions around touching each other? e.g. handshakes, hugs etc? Are there any resources that deal specifically with this aspect of post-covid19 life?

As a huggy, touchy person without a partner or a pet, my anxiety has chosen to settle on this matter.

Once we (hopefully) flatten the curve and society begins to function again, what is the expected scenario with regards to casual social touch? Will we be able to hug, shake hands, high-five, pat on the back again? Let alone more intimate touching with someone who isn't already part of our household?

Everything I read indicates that some degree of social distancing will need to be in place for quite a while post-lockdown (example). I get that this has implications for many things including urban planning, shopping, commuting etc. But looking at it in how it relates to individuals, it makes me sad and irrationally anxious to think about a society or a future where casual social touching is taboo.

Any reading recommendations, or insights, would be welcome.

I totally get that this is a really trivial thing to worry about in the grand scheme of things.
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This was an interesting piece in Wired on exactly this question.
posted by nantucket at 4:43 AM on March 26

Will we be able to hug, shake hands, high-five, pat on the back again?

Once this virus has been around for long enough that most people have had it and got over it at least once and/or vaccines are available, I can think of absolutely no reason to expect that we'll stay any better at personal and interpersonal hygiene than we were before it turned up, basically because there will be no strong motivation to be and maintaining anything close to current levels is inconvenient.

After the collective immune system has risen to the challenge of dealing with this new germ, I would expect to see germophobia return to its place as a niche interest.

>< until better times return.
posted by flabdablet at 4:49 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

As flabdablet observed, I imagine that people will resume their customary levels of physical touch as soon as the threat of contagion is over. I do think that Americans may learn to be more proactive about disease transmission for a few years.

On a personal level, I'm autistic and for most of my life, avoided all casual touch. I started bowing to people I see as a teenager, and it took 30 years for me to school myself into handshaking, hugs and high fives. The only time I've been out this month, I find I have reverted to bowing from a distance. But, I'm also hugging my cat more.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:18 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]

SARS permanently changed kid sneezing protocol in my area of Toronto. Kids were taught to cough/sneeze in their elbow. This came home to me when I started working with camp/after school staff under 20; they would correct our little ones pretty fiercely (“sneeze in your sleeve!!!”) where I would say “cover your mouth,” to Gen-Z’s horror. (I learned!)

Inside my home we are still hugging.

I think the jury may be out on handshakes.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:21 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

In Miami, a greeting usually means a kiss or a hug. Coronavirus may be changing that. [Miami Herald]

I spent a couple years in Miami, where frequent social touching amongst friends, business associates, and complete strangers is expected and enforced. Now, according to my friends and former colleagues there, hugging and cheek-kissing have been downgraded to merely handshaking (!). This is alarming from a public health standpoint, but we're talking about some deeply ingrained cultural practices.

I doubt coronavirus will permanently change physically affectionate cultures. If this virus is eventually brought under control and a vaccine becomes available, I think people will go back to kissing and hugging.
posted by theory at 5:35 AM on March 26

People forget really fast once a threat is over. If there's one thing we get out of this, I hope it's giving strangers more personal space in public (unlikely though). It will almost certainly not change people's default nature, though perhaps we may as a culture become more mindful of restraining from touching others when we are contagious or symptomatic, which would be a positive outcome.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:16 AM on March 26 [10 favorites]

It may change how I interact with strangers/ meeting people for the first time but let me tell you when I finally see my friends and family again I'm never going to stop hugging them or let them go.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:18 AM on March 26 [8 favorites]

Anecdote: my friend had two young kids during N1H1. She said she noticed their school’s became more strict about sending kids home when sick and hand washing. She said prior to that, people would still have play dates when their kids were noticeably sick and after, it was much more common to cancel play dates. Apparently, once one child was home sick with her mom one day and they spent time baking cupcakes and brought them to school the next day. After H1N1, she thought that really would not have happened. So overall, I’m trying to hope there will be more consideration during cold and flu season and employers who will be more willing to allow sick employees to stay home or with from home if possible.
posted by areaperson at 6:40 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

The sight of people standing in a group produces a negative reaction — if not an outright scolding, at least a sense of discomfort. I have a feeling that won’t go away for a long time.
I suspect that Montreal’s two-cheek kiss is gone for good.
posted by Jode at 7:37 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

This isn't a source, but I sincerely hope that it erodes the social pressure to touch strangers, particularly hand-shaking. I've always hated the unhygienic aspect of hand-shaking, and if there's any silver lining to all this, it will be that people stop thinking anyone's weird for refraining from doing it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:52 AM on March 26 [7 favorites]

It is interesting to see look at hygienic habits go through social change.

The Victorians became obsessed with hand washing during the same time period as they installed sewer drains everywhere they possibly could, so that "properly brought up" children were taught to wash their hands at set times of day and after using the chamber pot or the outhouse. The hand washing ritual/practice/custom was the result of correctly identifying the source of their death rate from diseases carried by sewage, and discovering that the children were much less likely to die in households that did not deviate from this practice/ritual/custom. If you could afford to supervise your children and could afford soap you had a much higher chance of not losing a kid or two or even all of them, so it became a marker of being in the successful and reliable class of people - in other words, being respectable.

The respectable classes were terrified of contagion and the story of Typhoid Mary was their worst nightmare - not just those who could afford to hire servants, but to the respectable members of the servant class themselves who identified with Mary, even though they would never have said so, and cleaned like their lives and the lives of their employer's family depended on it, because it did.

That generation and class spread the practice to others who were imitating the markers of their upbringing. Your mother may not have had soap and you may have had to use the outdoor pump even in the winter to get cold, slightly muddy well water, but when you grew up and started working for someone of that class you imitated them so you wouldn't get sacked, and to increase your chances of promotion. But at that point it also started to become more of a visible show than the obsessive anxious practice that it was at first. The custom of ostentatiously washing your hands has lingered, but mainly only as a pretense of washing after using the toilet in public places and the practices of washing when you come home, and before meals, or before you start cooking has survived even less.

People who are careful and anxious about hygiene still try to enforce this practice, but it is clearly a lost cause, mainly because it is no longer critical. If you fail to wash your hands you might get norovirus one day, but you aren't going to see row after row of little headstones with lambs carved on the top, entire sections of the cemetery with miniature sized plots for all the dead babies and children. So when most people encounter rants about how disgusting it is that people don't wash their hands after they use the toilet, most people feel more anxious about not being caught than they do about protecting themself and others. They resent the person social shaming them rather than being motivated to take it up as a practice. They have not been washing their hands for years without it causing anything more than a couple of dozen days of minor bowel complaint that could have been something they ate instead of dysenteric in origin.

So for things to change, changing our practices will have to first actually make a difference in our survival rate, and second become a marker between those who are influencers and those who are not. If people who wear masks die at the same rate or nearly that of people who can't source masks then it will only be the scrupulous who take up the practice on a long term basis, there will be fewer influencers in that group because they will not be being selected for, and their influence will be less.

Currently handshaking, like wearing suits, is rapidly becoming a practice only among certain classes while they signal that they are on the traditional upwardly mobile trajectory of business leaders. For most people wearing a suit signals that they are being obeisant to those people, as when Mark Zuckerberg wore a suit to testify, or when you wear a suit for your court date. Since the word "suit" is now used as an insult, the markers of being in that social class and power trajectory are clearly on the way out and the practice is being increasingly left to older white men. If you are not in that group and don't believe you can be, you both wear a suit and shake hands resentfully.

If you look at your screen when politicians are up there displaying themselves you'll see a row of suit and hands being shaken. This is putting them at significant risk so that we now have the Canadian PM under lock down looking after his three kids without domestic help while his wife stays in her own suite recovering, and Prince Charles in isolation somewhere in Scotland. Much will probably depend on the survival rate at that level of power. If they pretty much all survive they will be able to say that the deaths are an anomaly rather than the result of their social customs. If influencers in that group die, as when a popular teenager commits suicide, the group may react to fewer deaths more strongly. There will probably be a relatively high death rate in that group, and among their support staff and their families. Current treatments are not very effective, no matter how much money is spent on them. However higher status people are much more resilient to disease to lower status people, even when identical care is spent on them. That advantage will be offset by the fact that many more of these suit wearers are old enough to be in the higher risk groups.

For these reasons I think that handshaking is likely to become considered a dirty custom suitable for fossil fuel executives only. (This is an example group, not a prediction.) Whether fossil fuel executives will go on handshaking and clustering or repudiate the practice when they find themselves a minority that is considered unclean, is another question, as they may double down to retain their status as they will want to retain the social markers that signal their higher status and group membership. And if they retain their status over the time it will take for Covid19 and the various strains that will follow the first wave of infection until the virus is no longer disrupting society, then there may be a resurgence of the practice of shaking hands. Oil patch workers may temporarily stop shaking hands, only to go back to it because it enhances their status in that community where they are increasingly becoming a tribal group with their own practices who feel threatened by other groups.

Hugging is a necessary thing for humans and other primates. Children deprived of touch, and especially deprived of deep pressure do not thrive as well as children who are hugged. Hugging stimulates the release of oxytocin, the feel good bonding neurotransmitter, so in order to stop hugging we would have to have different brains. We are going to keep hugging. Customs around hugging are very different in very different societies, but they all hug. The difference is who they hug and when. That could change due to this pandemic, but because we already have strong prohibitions against hugging strangers because of the number of people who experience it as being captured rather than being carried to safety, it is likely that we will continue using the same system of selective hugging with required consent. Asking "May I give you a hug?" is a best practice, and will very likely continue to be successfully used to ensure that we can get the reassurance and bonding we want and need. During the pandemic many people will be temporarily choosing to deny themselves hugs. When they feel safe they will want those hugs again badly. They are the majority and include many warm, demonstrative, loving, well connected influencers. Hugs are not going away.

Touching people is an important public gesture, which keeps changing to demonstrate that is not merely a ritual and has an implied meaning. High five, forehead bump, rubbing noses, fist bump, clasping someone's hand in both of yours - these are gestures that we use to investigate and communicate that we are close enough and mutually supportive enough that if we need physical assistance, we will grant or can get it. You don't shake hands or high five when you get on the bus, and if someone on the bus faints, you haven't signaled that you will help them stand up again, although of course you may be willing to do so.

People who want to signal that kind of closeness but who are distressed by actual touch use different non contact signals, such as the gesture of shooting the other person or pointing at them or sending a gif of a virtual hug. There is a big difference between the gesture of reaching without touching, and the cold stare which means keep your distance and don't ask for any favours, and we can tell their meanings apart easily. For now we are going to be using a lot of those type of signals. They are going to get more subtle because a reach-without-touching gesture can easily be misinterpreted as an offer to touch. Calibration of these signals is going on, just as it always does. Influencers who demonstrate them will provide us with guidance. If we were to see Dr. Fauci holding his hand forward but downward and drooping, before pulling it back before the other person can respond by touching it, we will understand it means, "You are someone I would be willing to touch if the circumstances change" and we will pick up both the gesture from him, and the appropriate response, which may be something like a smile and slumping of the shoulders to signal "I feel better because of your gesture but am not going to touch you." Someone like Dr. Fauci could easily make that kind of a gesture without planning or considering it and as he is being observed so closely for guidance by so many people, that kind of a gesture could easily turn into appropriate social practice that gets used for the next century, complete with guidelines taught formally the way there are written rules now about how firm a grip to use when shaking hands.

The depth and length of the pandemic and its longer consequences make a huge difference in how much change in social touch there will be. If we are back to normal (not just out of lock down) by Christmas it will be a change like 9/11 where observing someone in daily life probably won't reveal any changes until they go to the airport.

If contracting the virus confers immunity, that could lead to some interesting changes in the pattern of touch behaviour. It would mean that persons with that immunity are okay with social touch, but people who are not immune must avoid it until they acquire immunity. Social touch from people with immunity would become valuable to us, both because we are going to be touch starved for awhile, and they can safely touch us, but also as a link to a group that feels special to us, as when people boast that they shook hands with the vice president once, or with Neil Degrasse Tyson. Magical thinking means that we will want to feel their touch because they were one of the lucky or special people and we want to be like them. If they touch us it means we are affiliated more closely with them and on some level hope or believe we may have their advantage conferred on us. Since their advantage is that they survived, there will be a strong impulse to want to belong to that group.

Post pandemic we may be touching much more as we recover, because touch is reassuring and touchers have higher status, or we may be touching less because we have increased anxiety about touching. This will probably have quite a bit of variance before we figure out what the new norm will be. Different groups will do it differently. After awhile the new norm will be very close to the old norm, because human nature, communication and needs are not going to change but the people we define as those we can touch could have different parameters. You might see a change like it becoming more acceptable to hug other people's children again because they are at less risk when they get the virus, and we are doing more alloparenting. This would still have nuances. It might still be totally unacceptable for men to hug children, while women are newly given that level of trust. Again, these are examples of changes we could see and will depend on the length and intensity of our collective trauma, and many, many random factors.

If the pandemic is recurring and there is no immunity the social change is going to be so very big that there is no predicting what's going to happen. But at that point we are on the subject of apocalyptic fiction and beyond the predictions that the best scientists make. We expect to get this under control. Like decoding the genome, stopping the pandemic might turn out to be solved very much faster than the shortest time being predicted by scientists right now. It is amazing what we can do with many people intent on helping. There are literally millions of people suddenly obsessively focusing them on whatever facet of the situation they are in a position to work on. And these people are now so connected so that the woman in Melbourne who is coming up with an idea of making better virus filtering tissue out of recycled plastic is talking to the one in Hong Kong who has ditched activism for the moment and knows that a certain solvent that partially dissolves plastic is the key to turning it into an easy to make material, and there is a boy in a virtual classroom about to tells his teacher, "Maybe my dad can help your wife build a prototype. He knows a lot about valves." Between them they are going to come up with a way to ensure that testers are not exposed to the virus while testing without them having to wear protective equipment in the lab and that in turn will mean that there is a manufacturing facility no longer so swamped that they can't make changes to their production line and start producing better test media. There are people looking at every problem we have to solve to get a cure and a vaccine out. I'm not predicting that amateurs will save us, although they too are getting hyper-focused and looking for ways they can contribute and are making a ginourmous difference, but describing the professionals who have the connections and knowledge to solve problems that weren't on their radar a month ago, and which are now consuming them. It is a lovely thing to see chat logs in certain groups right now.

The deaths that brought about the hygiene and hand washing practices of the Victorians were prolonged because they didn't know the cause of those deaths over decades and even centuries. Their contemporaries were overwhelmed by the speed with with they took the steps needed to bring the death rate down. We do know already exactly what is causing our current pandemic, so that we know that a change in social habits like washing hands or not touching each other casually in public that will not give us a full solution, the same way that washing hands helped, but installing the drains is what really brought the death rates down. Right now not touching is just a signal of our commitment to our collective problem more than an effective measure to save lives. It's how we are saying, "I love you," and how we are asking, "Do you love me?" Once there is an effective cure or a effective available vaccine or both, social touch can revert to our habitual norms because the waves of crisis will have passed. The gestures will change but social touch is here to stay. It signals so much about how committed we are to each other.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:07 AM on March 26 [22 favorites]

Handshakes have always been conceptually about exposing yourself to risk. The original idea was you’d have to drop your weapons to do it, in a show of mutual vulnerability. I wouldn’t be surprised if people become even more enthusiastic touchers in the post-covid era in the same sort of spirit, as if to say “I trust that you won’t kill me”
posted by rodlymight at 8:11 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

Thanks all for the answers - Jane the Brown, I flagged yours as fantastic because it was so interesting!
posted by unicorn chaser at 10:06 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I work in a high school. The kids, especially the younger ones ,(12-15) keep touching each other. All the time. Wrestling, grabbing, piggy backs, then as they get older you see them sitting closer, especially with a girlfriend or boyfriend.

It was a bit stressful before the school closed! (Arrogant little twerps yelling 'social distancing!' while grabbing someone didn't help!)

My theory is that you shift how you receive physical touch as you go through puberty and that our kids are touch starved as a result. (Especially boys, which leads to our issues with playground wrestling/fights, but that's a rant for another time)

So in summary touch is an essential human need and no; it won't go away for good, even if we have to pause for COVID.
posted by freethefeet at 4:00 PM on March 26

I also wonder if it might go in waves. If our city, state, my son's school, etc. opens back up before is recommended, our family might still stay home, or a modified version (work from home but son can go to school, or something). I have two significant risk factors, so our family might avoid everything we reasonably can for as long as we reasonably can.

I religiously get a flu shot, I've had the pneumovax, I take all my medicine. I got the flu this year and ended up in the ER. I am, by nature, a hugger, and an arm-toucher and a hand-shaker, and I for very sure will not be that for a while. But, unless there is some reason we don't develop a vaccine, I'll be back to my physical loving self when actual science says we're good.
posted by Pax at 7:44 PM on March 26

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