Hungarians puszi puszi. Americans hug. I did neither. My inner jury is out as to which took me longer to adjust to.
When I first moved to the States, the hugging thing really got to me. Everyone hugged. I’d grown up in an Ireland where any sort of display of affection drew a crooked look. Shaking hands was as close as we got to physicality (which, back then, wasn’t even a word). When the Catholic Church brought in the sign of peace, communities nationwide inhaled sharply and offered up their discomfort to free the holy souls from purgatory.
Leaving a friend’s relative’s house one day after visiting [another new concept for me – in Ireland, you took your chances and dropped by, unannounced. In the States, you rang (sorry, called) to make an appointment], someone went to hug me. I took a step back and said politely that I simply didn’t do hugs. They looked at me, paused, and then hugged me anyway, telling me that I’d better get used to it. I was in America now.
So now I hug. When I have to.
I’m not a great one for PDAs. I am a toucher though. And a rather indiscriminate one at that. If I speak to you and you’re standing within reach, I’ll punctuate by touch. Perhaps this is my way for making up for the lack of PDAs, my way of getting my daily dose of oxytocin, aka the ‘cuddle hormone’. Oxytocin is known as nature’s antidepressant and apparently it takes a 20-second hug to release it.
According to psychologist Alex Korb, oxytocin generates a soothing feeling by reducing our emotional reactivity to negative and threatening elements in our environment. Korb argues that interpersonal touch is one of the most powerful ways of increasing oxytocin in the body.
Of course, contact with warm and soft objects also has a soothing and relaxing effect – which might explain my relationship with my hot water bottle.
For those living in a hug-free world, he recommends a hot shower or wrapping up in a warm blanket holding a mug of hot tea. ‘Tis warmth and affection our body craves. And all too often, we underestimate how powerful human contact can be.
I’m getting better, but I’m still not great. I’ve gotten the hang of the puszi puszi thing, a kiss on either cheek, but even that comes with rules that defy me. If you don’t do it first time you meet, it’s hard to then start doing it next time you meet. And if you’re saying hello or goodbye to a group, that’s a lot of kissin’.
Years ago, after a week in Hungary, I went back to the UK. An Indian colleague dropped by unexpectedly and I got a call from reception to go meet him. We got on well but were bound up in that professional cultural work thing. He was there with his new boss and wanted me to meet him. After a week of kissing all and sundry in Budapest, I didn’t stop to think. I reached out, grabbed his hand, pulled him into an embrace and was inches from the first cheek landing when I realised that this was NOT what I should be doing with an Indian. But I’d gone too far to turn back.
His boss was watching open-mouthed as I continued and kissed both cheeks and then retreated into a mortified explanation. I’d be in Hungary. I was only back. They puszi puszi. I’d had a week of kissing strangers who would become friends. It was an automatic reaction. I was sooooooooooooooooooooo sorry to have embarrassed him. I’d never seen him blush before but blush he did.
That evening, I met the pair of them for a pint. When I got to the bar, his boss jumped up and gave me the puszi puszi. He blushed but he did it. I didn’t have the heart to point out that we weren’t in Hungary and that perhaps a handshake might be more British.
But back to the hugs. I’ve seen people wandering round cities wearing signs that say ‘hug me’ or ‘free hugs here’. And I’ve wondered. But it would seem that it does make a difference. And not just when you’re sad. But anytime. They say you need four hugs a day to survive, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. Four is a lot, but I’m working on it. So don’t be surprised if I ask you for one. Am all for increasing my oxytocin levels. In the name of scientific research.