PHILADELPHIA — David Sylvester has given hugs and high-fives to more than half a million people in 42 countries since starting his “Big Dave Hugs the World” project in 2001, but the West Philly resident hasn’t embraced anyone since March 16.
“It’s been rough,” said Sylvester, 55, a personal trainer at the Union League of Philadelphia. “This has been the longest I’ve gone without hugging somebody in my life.”
The hug withdrawal is so real for Edie Weinstein, 61, of Bucks County, who’s been offering hugs to strangers since 2014 with her “Hug Mobsters,” that one night she dreamed people discovered a way to hug each other back-to-back.
“I don’t know when it’s going to be safe to go out and hug deprived people out there, but whenever it happens, watch out, because there’s a lot of people who need hugs,” said Weinstein, a therapist and licensed social worker.
Experts and on-the-ground greeters like Sylvester and Weinstein aren’t sure what the future of hugs, handshakes and high-fives will be in a post-coronavirus world, but one thing is certain: It’s going to get awkward before it gets better.
“I think it’s going to be like a high school dance. Everyone is nervous about getting on the dance floor,” said Sylvester.
Our nonverbal greetings usually answer three questions, according to Tricia Jones, communications professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication: Are you a threat? Who am I to you? And what kind of relationship are we in?
“The greetings most of us rely on so much — and frankly, that COVID is getting in the way of — are those greetings that, with one gesture, answer ‘Who am I to you?’ in terms of dominance and intimacy,” she said.
At the same time, these greetings stimulate pressure receptors that calm the nervous system, decrease stress hormones, and save immune cells, said Tiffany Field, founder and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
“It’s ironic that we’re here in a viral pandemic and one of the things that works at killing our viral cells is moving the skin,” she said.
A survey Field conducted in April found 60% of people are feeling touch-deprived as a result of the pandemic.
Given that the United States is a “pretty low-contact culture,” greetings are one of the only ways we get physical contact outside our romantic partnerships, said Katie Dunleavy, associate professor of communications at La Salle University.
“Physical touch is really, really important, but we don’t get it enough,” she said.
Even before the coronavirus, our society was becoming more vigilant about not touching, Dunleavy said, amid increasing concerns raised by the Me Too movement and child advocates.
“I think it’s like a lot of things with the coronavirus. It’s like, ‘Wait, this is changing, but is it necessary to go back?’” she said.
Alternative nonverbal gestures from bowing to the peace sign have been proposed, but nothing’s stuck yet. Field said she likes the elbow and ankle bumps, which allow for increased eye contact, which she believes is “critical when greeting people.”
David Matsumoto, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University who founded the school’s Culture and Emotion research lab as well as Humintell, a nonverbal behavior research and training company, believes our greetings are so entrenched in us they will return.
“I do believe the strength of that need based on human nature is stronger than the fear of a pandemic,” he said. “Humans will not let this overwhelm the need for connection.”
What Matsumoto does see evolving are our conventions about greetings. For instance, traditionally, if someone offers you a palm for a handshake, it’s rude to decline. That may change.
“There’s more individual respect about people who have different feelings about that,” he said.
That will mean we have to get better at other kinds of communication, Jones said.
“If you show hesitancy to shake someone’s hand, how skilled are you at knowing how to explain to that person what’s going on?” she said.
Weinstein and Sylvester aren’t worried about those awkward moments (they’ve been asking strangers to hug them for years). They just can’t wait until they can hug again.
“I’ll figure out a way to get it done. I haven’t done this for 19 years with a half a million people because this doesn’t mean anything,” Sylvester said. “It means something and it’s important.”