On Hugs

I miss hugs.

New Zealand is not a particularly cuddly place. New Zealanders are a friendly lot, but we’re of Scottish descent and we don’t do hugs, we’re more inclined to a manly reticence (even when we’re not men).

Many many moons ago, when I was on my first overseas trip (to Adelaide in Australia), my companion (a fellow grad student) and I watched a bunch of arty young Adelaide natives greeting each other with exuberant hugs and kisses. He watched them disapprovingly and commented that it was all for show and they’d probably only seen each other a couple of hours ago anyway. And he was right that they were performing for the assembled masses. But his feeling that hugs are not for public display and furthermore that they should be kept for special occasions says a lot about how we view physical contact in New Zealand.

We tend to equate physical contact with sex, which means that cuddles and touches tend only to happen in the context of a sexual relationship and all your other relationships remain strictly non-physical. This is a problem for the tactile members of the group who get their advances misinterpreted or rejected, or just suffer from lack of contact.

I was wistful about the lack of hugs and affection as a lass, but I didn’t realise all that I was missing out on until I got to Vancouver and found myself part of a group of friends who hugged each other on arrival and departure as a matter of course. It took some practice to figure out the social niceties of when and who to hug and for how long. But I settled right in.

And then of course, in Costa Rica, you have to contend with everyone kissing you as part of the greeting and farewell routine, even people you’ve just met. This was a bit more awkward – I never quite knew where to aim – but very nice as well. We had a holiday dinner with the family of a friend and every person who came in, even quite small children, worked their way around the room, kissing everyone on the cheek and greeting them, finishing up with a kiss on each cheek for my friend’s father, the patriarch. It was a lovely warm affirmation of family and belonging and of the status of each person in the group.

Back in New Zealand now, I really notice the absence of greeting and leaving rituals. Petra knows their importance. When we’re at my mother’s place, she makes everyone in the family kiss her (and sometimes each other, which amuses me because Travis gets to kiss my mother and Kelvin’s daughter finds herself kissing me and Travis) as part of getting ready to leave. But here in Wellington, we don’t get to force ourselves on our new friends. I’d like to hug or kiss people, but I know they’d be disconcerted so we just leave, which is a shame.

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