Learning to hug again: Time to move past elbow bumps for our own mental health


Psychologists say we should move past elbow bumps, for our own mental health and mutual trust. Photo: dpa

A slap on the back, a kiss goodbye, a simple handshake – the passing moments of brief physical contact that come with friendships were mostly lost during the pandemic. Psychologists say we should move past elbow bumps for our own mental health and mutual trust.

Since the coronavirus began settling in our respiratory tracts and upending our lives, we’ve practised social distancing to reduce its spread. We’ve even kept close friends at arm’s length – two arm’s lengths – or avoided in-person interactions altogether, replacing them with video conferences.

Or we haven’t replaced them. In a representative international survey, nearly a third of the respondents said that generally speaking, their relationships with friends had become less close since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. The survey was conducted by YouGov, a London-based international research data and analytics group, as part of its Cambridge Globalism Project.

Although strict contact restrictions have now eased in many places, it’s not always easy to pick up where you left off. Psychologist Horst Heidbrink, an instructor and social relationships researcher at the Hagen Distance-Learning University in Germany, isn’t surprised by the results of the survey.

“There’s something paradoxical about the pandemic,” he says. People normally come closer together in a crisis, “but we were told during that pandemic not to see our friends any more if we wanted to do something good for them.”

Casual friendships and acquaintances have suffered most, for example the people you chat with during workouts at the gym, the co-workers you regularly drank coffee with at the corner cafe before the pandemic, or your card-playing buddies at the neighbourhood pub.

“The pandemic has shown how important places like these are for social interaction,” Heidbrink says.

Sports clubs, gyms, bars and restaurants were closed for long stretches of time. If you return to your favourite haunts now, you may not see the same people you did in pre-pandemic days. So gone is the reassuring feeling in knowing you’ll see familiar faces there. It must be developed anew – if the places still exist.

You may already have new favourite places, and perhaps new friends as well. Some friendships aren’t worth keeping and persist from force of habit only. The pandemic may have exposed their dispensability, giving you the opportunity to restructure your social circle.

Deliberately ending a friendship, telling someone you no longer wish to spend time together, is hard to do. It’s much easier to simply let a relationship gradually peter out by not seeing each other.

In the backwash from a pandemic that keeps making waves, making new acquaintances and reviving old ones is hampered by qualms about what used to be normal physical contact. Now we think twice before giving or accepting a peck on the cheek when greeting, an encouraging pat on the back or a friendly embrace.

“Touching other people has suddenly become a risk to both your health and theirs,” notes Romy Simon, chair of micro-sociology (interaction and socialisation research) at Dresden University of Technology (TUD).

Touching is a key element in social bonding, she explains. “When people touch each other, their bodies release oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’. This promotes trust and empathy between them,” says Simon, adding that the effect can’t be duplicated by digital contact via electronic screens.

Another strain on many friendships during the past two years are differing views on contact restrictions and vaccinations against Covid-19. Friends didn’t always see eye to eye prior to the pandemic too, Heidbrink says, “but if their friendship was important to them, they found a modus vivendi (way of life) and set their differences of opinion aside”.

Setting such differences aside has been more difficult during the pandemic because our positions on protective measures have “dictated our behaviour”, he points out.

Simon sees longstanding friendships “that have experienced other fissures before” as the ones best equipped to overcome divisions over Covid-19. If you’ve previously managed to recalibrate your relations with each other, it’ll be easier to reconcile yourselves to your new disagreements. – dpa/Eva Dignos

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