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Avoid the touch minefield and just hug a dog

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It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Now, while people are suffering from Covid, or grieving for loved ones, may not be the best time to point out any benefits of this infernal virus. But a social change stumbled across my path last week and it got me thinking.

I was speaking to a businessman of a polite disposition. He regularly greets women in the course of his work and he always found it a nightmare. Does a handshake appear too formal? Does a hug appear too intimate? Forget about the cheek kissing. Unless you grow up in a country where you learn the routine by osmosis, we all make a mess of it and are either left hanging or osculating with the recipient's earlobe.

"All of that confusion is now gone," he said, "and frankly, it makes life a lot easier." He earnestly hoped we would never go back to the touchy-feely days. I did not particularly share his difficulties. If I don't know a woman well, I opt for the handshake. I would need to have a very easy-going relationship with someone before venturing to the hug. And forget the air-kissing unless they show me their passport.

The problem, however, does not stop there. Touch during a conversation between a man and a woman is even more of a minefield. This is the area I am happy not to have to worry about during social distancing.

Last summer I was sitting in an outdoor French restaurant with friends and relations who spanned the generations. I had eaten there often. The waitress used my name and I used hers. In the course of emphasising a 'no gluten' point, I touched her gently on the forearm. To judge by the reaction I got from some of the very cool twenty-somethings at my table, I may as well have put my hand up her skirt. There were sharp intakes of breath sufficient to make the Mediterranean tidal. As soon as she left, I received a tongue lashing.

It mattered not at all that the waitress, Jess, had not paid a blind bit of attention to my faux pas. I had apparently demonstrated several abuses of power… that of age, maleness, wealth, though for all we knew, she lived on a yacht. If she hadn't been the same skin colour as me, that would have been in the mix also. Thankfully there was not even a suggestion of sleaziness. It was just me demonstrating my white man power and sense of entitlement and being so used to such privilege that I was totally unaware of it. 

The psychological benefits of a good hug are well documented. That feel-good hormone, oxytocin, gets a boost, blood pressure goes down, stress levels and anxiety decrease. But my hunch is that this applies to a welcome hug from a member of the opposite sex. I spend too much time in the company of males in the entertainment business. They are serial huggers. A meeting can be bone-crushing and I am not convinced that does anything for my stress levels. The rituals on the 18th green now take about five minutes as every combination of hug is achieved. At least there is no power imbalance, other than the pleasurable one of having taken a tenner off them on the golf course.

The psychological benefits of the welcome hug - pleasant feelings and improved immune response - are very similar to what you get from your friendly pet dog. I am fortunate in that there are a number of wonderful dogs in my social circle who adore me. All will desert their owners for me as soon as I arrive. And none is carrying this deadly virus.

We all need that bit of physical closeness. For the time being, I will avoid humans and stay safe. Plus, there is the bonus of having my face licked.

Sunday Independent