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David Brann /

You can see it coming from miles away. It starts with a jutting motion of the arms into the air above their head. Then their fingers sprawl in five directions and their palms become white with enthusiasm. A flurry of tiny steps follow, and grow progressively faster as they near you until, finally, along with a squeal of joy, their arms swoop around your sides, wrapping you up snuggly, and their chin digs deep into your shoulder.

Hugs used to be a part of everyday life, but so many things have changed during the quarantine.

I wonder specifically how life on campus will be affected, so I look to Columbia’s Enforcement Plan for Enhanced Health and Safety for answers.

“Can we get together in groups for events, meetings, or to socialize?”

No, I won’t be having the same experiences other classes have had as first-years, but these are unprecedented times. Creative solutions that maximize our collective safety are of the utmost importance, and who says a “different” experience is a bad thing?

Are elbow bumps OK?

I want as much information as I can get so that I can replace my college bucket list items with new, restriction-compatible experiences. So I read every word slowly and with care and try my best to imagine what the Columbia I will soon inhabit will look like.

What about walking side by side?

I keep scrolling. Daily symptom checking, recovery planning, facility enhancements. Now, I find myself deep in the FAQs.

Can I hug my friends if I have a face covering on?

My eyes linger on the words that follow. My heart sinks. Could it be? It is certain. There, in front of my eyes, on my computer screen in cold, hard letters.

“Can I hug my friends?”

“No.”

***

Columbia released its Enforcement Plan for Enhanced Health and Safety Policy on June 18. It provides information about what life will be like at Columbia during this pandemic and announces the new rules that members of the Columbia community must abide by. The plan intends to implement all the safety precautions necessary to minimize COVID-19-related health risks while allowing 60 percent of undergraduate students to return to campus in the fall. In the plan, along with mask requirements and other restrictions, is the “no hugging” rule.

The “no hug” rule is just one small part of what has been put in place to protect those planning to return to campus in the fall—a small but, we would argue, a significant part of the picture. In a survey of about 100 incoming students, 87.2 percent believe hugging or physical touch is somewhat and very important to their relationships. In fact, the repercussions of “no hugging” reflect some of the concerns about physical distancing at large.

A hug conveys a sense of comfort, inclusion, and care. Hugs say “thank you,” “I love you,” or “I support you.” Consensual hugging strengthens the bonds of those that share it. Hugs can be the first gesture towards a new friendship, or, after five months of quarantining, a way to convey to old friends that it has truly been too long.

There is perhaps no substitute for a good hug, and while the plan indicates that elbow bumping is allowed, 93 percent of students surveyed believe that this is not a satisfactory replacement for hugs.

During this time of great social and political unrest, it is especially easy to overlook a rule like “no hugging” because it seems minuscule in comparison to the dangers of a virus. However, the importance of physical contact should not be forgotten. Physical distancing and the “no hugging” rule threatens individual and community-wide feelings of connectedness, and while it is important to ensure the health and safety of the Columbia community, a rule like this raises critical questions about the future of any social community.

To answer these questions, we hopped on a Zoom call with Nicholas Arpaia, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Reducing the amount of interactions between individuals, the time of those interactions, increasing the distance between individuals, and really limiting the potential for there being a concentrated amount of virus from anyone that may be asymptomatic is very effective,” he shares.

Arpaia confirmed that the restrictions outlined in the safety plan should help minimize the spread of the virus—including the restriction on hugging.

But banning hugging and other types of physical distancing presents challenges alongside these clear benefits.

The biology behind why many people believe hugs are necessary sheds light on how physical contact is crucial to social spaces, including Columbia’s campus. Michael Murphy, a post-doctoral research associate in Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease, has found through his research that there is a biological explanation for why we need to hug. He is at the forefront of research on hugging in Western societies.

“Touch behaviors, such as hugs, can reduce feelings of distress in response to unpleasant or painful tasks,” Murphy explains. “Affection in touch impacts how our body releases hormones that can ease distress and even changes how our physiology responds to stress. It helps turn down the fight or flight response from the stressful experiences.”

Despite the clear health benefits hugs provide, Arpaia doesn’t think the risks that hugging presents are worth it. “Imagine that you’re not wearing a mask or you’re not following guidelines. You could potentially infect somebody without even knowing it,” Arpaia says.

Bailey Brown, a Columbia alumna, postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, and professor of sociology at Spelman College, believes hanging out with others and building relationships while having to be physically distant during this time “presents a sort of fun challenge.”

Brown suggests that the first step to erasing physical distance as an obstacle to socializing during this time, while still taking all necessary health precautions, is to distinguish between being “socially distant” and “physically distant.” If people can adopt the mindset that being physically distant is an extremely prosocial act, that may be the key to leaning into a digital model of socialization. For those who want to support the collective and interpersonal support systems in their life, but may have a hard time leaning into a digital mode of communication, Brown advises that “there’s no better way to do that than showing that you care enough about someone else to not put them at risk.”

Murphy explains that socializing is something we as humans have really evolved to need, so much so that “When we experience social pain, the same sort of brain regions that light up from physical pain also light up to social pain.” When it comes to Columbia students, about 72 percent agree or strongly agree that they feel more sad or lonely when they are not able to hug others.

A lack of hugging on the individual level will impact how the community treats and acknowledges one another. It is still unclear whether online efforts sufficiently replace being in-person, Murphy says: “There’s so much that goes on in in-person interactions that is very difficult to convey over even a high-quality video stream.” Physical distancing restrictions including no hugging will alter the ways in which we express affection and greet one another. This may be especially difficult for those coming onto campus for the first time and looking to forge lasting friendships with their peers. Maggie Ryan, BC ’23, knows that the role that touch plays in her friendships will be affected in the fall. She says, “As a new transfer, I think making friends will be difficult in the first place, so it would be nice to not have tons of restrictions. Hugging is definitely important to me, for it helps build and solidify relationships.”

The reality of how campus dynamics will change as a result of no physical touch emphasizes how significant college is to our happiness and social well being. Brown encourages every student, especially those who are more inclined to self-isolate completely or those who may not be coming to New York in the fall, to put in that extra effort that is necessary to stay connected during these times.

“Now that people are physically distant, I think it’s really easy to put so much effort into our academics while we’re in college and not as much effort into the social aspects,” Brown says. “But I think for mental health reasons, we need our social support, and it’s important to put a concerted effort into our social life and to be intentional about building relationships in ways that we didn’t have to do before.”

Arpaia, who is also a resident of New York City, believes the pandemic and physical restrictions will not only impact how we act as students, but also as New York City residents. He is hopeful that New Yorkers will fare well during this pandemic as a result of self-awareness and being used to thinking about others.

“As a New Yorker, like on the subway even before this, we’ve always just been focused on not bothering anybody else. I am actively focusing on how I don’t impede on anybody else’s personal space,” Arpaia explains. “We want everybody to have their own freedoms because we enjoy those as well. And so in that way, we all must follow these guidelines in order to be able to not negatively impact somebody else.”

Even those new to the community agree with Arpaia that, while physical restrictions may cause unprecedented consequences, they are happy to make sacrifices for the well being of themselves and others.

“I’m a big fan of hugging, but I definitely understand why there should be a rule against it because of the pandemic,” Elina Huang, BC ’23 and an incoming transfer, says. “It’s going to be hard to cope with it in the fall but it’s a small sacrifice to make for the overall health of campus.”

Adjustments that adhere to the new protocols have already been made to the incoming student experience. Overnight programs like Days on Campus, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, the Columbia Urban Experience, and the International Student Orientation Program were canceled, and the New Student Orientation Program is going to be online. While it may seem unusual to hold orientation programs on Zoom, they are integral to the student experience”Orientations introduce students to life on a college campus and make the transition easier,” Brown says. “So, especially if you’re a first-year student, you get to meet people right away, and some of the homesickness that a student might feel or having difficulty making new friends—these programs are meant to build those transitions.”

Though it is uncertain when the world will return to a state of normalcy, until then, classes will resume for all students, albeit a bit differently. It is clear that following the physical distancing restrictions and maintaining social bonds are both crucial to the wellbeing of our community, and so the opportunity to explore new avenues of connecting with each other without risking our health presents itself. Arpaia believes the impact this pandemic will have on the future of socialization is directly related to how long it lasts.

“If we get a really effective vaccine that comes out in six more months, and a lot of people get the vaccine, and we are able to crush this within the next 12 months or so,” Arpaia says, lasting effects will be more minor than if the pandemic lasts for multiple years. In that case, “it seems more likely that it will greatly impact how we socialize afterward and how safe we feel being around other people,” Arpaia says.

During this time, when socializing is occurring less organically, it takes extra effort and thought to prioritize our social well-being individually and as a people. Though the experience of this pandemic is emotional and tumultuous—and it is harder for some more than others—we should not forget that this is also a shared experience between us all. Murphy believes it is very important to check on your friends for the sake of your well-being and theirs. In his studies, he has also observed resilience among humans and emphasizes that it is important to support one another, now more than ever.

About resilience, Murphy makes an important note:”Even if we believe the model response to the pandemic is resilience, we don’t want to blame people who aren’t able to be resilient. And so, we will need to be sensitive to that, but I’m hopeful that, on average, people are going to adapt well.”

Brown empowers current students to rise to the occasion and lead the way into a successful post-pandemic world.

“You are all part of a generation that’s starting to sort of mold what you know and how you can still maintain social connections with one another, even though we have to take these precautions,” Brown says. “You and students on campus are paving the future amid the change that’s happening.”

hugs COVID-19 physical distancing Columbia mental health
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