Do you remember the last time you shook someone’s hand?
For me, it was March 8, sometime during Los Angeles Football Club’s match against the Philadelphia Union at the Banc of California Stadium in L.A. A fan approached me to take a picture together. I was initially hesitant; afterward, I took some hand sanitizer out of my pocket — squirt, squirt, rub, rub — and kept it moving. The next day, physical contact with nonfamily members was reduced to elbow bumping; by March 11, the day the NBA suspended its season, less than that.
A month has passed since my last handshake and I still feel human. Perhaps this is what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, had in mind when he suggested we should stop shaking hands altogether. Besides, who among us can find hand sanitizer?
Proper social distancing, however, is more than just handshakes. It’s a pat on the back. A bro hug. A gentle squeeze of the leg or a peck on the cheek. Massages. Touch may not get the same media love as the other senses, but science affirms its vital importance. And its absence in our lives now may be causing unintended harm.
That’s because touching increases the natural killer cells that help us fight off illnesses, said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. Touch also decreases cortisol, a hormone that can harm the immune system; it also helps ward off depression.
“I read a study in which researchers injected a cold virus into patients and they measured the amount of hugging with each patient,” Field said last week. “The subjects who received hugs did not get the cold. The ones who did not receive hugs did. We know that when couples hug each other or hold hands, they have lower stress levels than those who don’t.
“It’s ironic that at a time when we need good immune function, we can’t touch people.”
Field, who has written more than 30 books, said those who are quarantining or following safer-at-home orders with family or other loved ones obviously still have access to touch during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who are single have to be more intentional.
“They are going to have to be more active by doing sit-ups or walking around the room, because walking stimulates the pressure receptors under the feet and can give you a sense of touch,” she said. “Yoga is a form of self-massage, or you can just be more attentive and massage your body. Anything that can move the skin with moderate pressure helps.”
And I thought handshakes were only good for saying hello.
In any case, Dianna Sekowski, a single 36-year-old nurse practitioner downtown, could use one right about now. When I asked her the last time she had skin-to-skin contact with someone, the silence was so extended that I thought the phone signal had dropped.
“I really … huh … man … I just don’t remember … that is really, really something … strange,” she said.
Phillip Hawkins, a single 29-year-old video editor and day trader from Baldwin Hills, had a similar nonanswer.
“I think I broke the rule the first night L.A. was officially locked down, but for the most part, I’ve just been sticking to going to the grocery store and no human contact,” he said. “It’s not fazing me as much, because I’m an introvert, and I don’t need to be around people that much anyway. But it is strange to go out of my way to not touch … even if it’s just accidentally bumping into someone.”
And that’s the rub, right? It’s not just about innocuous handshakes. It’s the active avoidance of contact, like a game of freeze tag, that has made this wrinkle in time especially odd. Consider that other global events like war and famine do not require humans to avoid contact to return to normalcy. Even during the height of the AIDS epidemic, as terrifying as that was, the medical field was not discouraging touch.
“We are less hostile, less angry when we touch,” said Field, who has begun collecting data on the ramifications of social distancing during this pandemic. “We were already a touch-deprived society before this. We’ve done research at the airport and had noticed a sharp decline in touching at the security lines. There used to be hand-holding and touching while people waited … now everyone is on their cellphones and not touching each other at all. It will be interesting to see how we interact with one another once this has passed.”
New York-based photographer Richard Renaldi is also curious what touch will look like after COVID-19. For seven years, Renaldi canvassed the country, collecting photographs of 200 pairs of complete strangers for a project aptly titled “Touching Strangers.” He observed the behavior of groups of people who didn’t know one another at public gathering spaces such as bus stations and crosswalks. He wondered what would happen if he asked these strangers to physically connect.
“It started off awkwardly, but ended up being a nice experience for everyone,” he said. “There was a moment of intimacy, a genuine feeling of connection that came out of two people who didn’t know each other holding hands. CBS did a segment on the project and they trailed me on a shoot in New York. They interviewed my subjects afterwards, and a lot of them talked about feeling closer to the person they were photographed with, no matter how fleeting the contact.
“Psychologically, there is a need to touch, and how that will manifest after this, I don’t know. On the one hand, there’s this feeling of ‘Please don’t touch me because I don’t want your deadly virus,’ but that will be in intense conflict with the benefits of touch, no matter how fleeting. There may be a way to bridge that distance by being verbally intimate with people.
“I notice in this small town where we are right now people are six feet apart but we are saying hi more. Perhaps another type of intimacy, like more eye contact and more substantive verbal exchanges, will emerge. Maybe we’ll evolve into other [forms] of touching.”
If behavior on dating apps is any indicator, perhaps Renaldi is right.
A spokesperson from Tinder said that despite social distancing, there were more swipes on March 29 — more than 3 billion — than on any single day in the history of the app. Daily conversations on the app have been up an average of 20% globally, and the average length of the conversations is 25% longer. Conversations in the U.S. have been up an average of 19%, and the length of dialogue is 8% longer. A spokesperson from Grindr didn’t reveal numbers but indicated that traffic had not declined while the app continues to promote social distancing.
Sekowski, the nurse practitioner, said that although she hasn’t touched anyone physically, her messages via DM have blown up.
“You would think you can’t date and be social right now, but more guys are hitting me up,” she said. “I’m actually talking more than in the past. It’s been really beautiful.
“Had we not had the coronavirus, we probably would’ve met up and everything would have moved a lot faster. But because I can’t meet up with someone I’m interested in, I feel like I can just be more open and less guarded. Why not, right? Like I may never meet this person, and I think guys are feeling the same way. As a result, we are talking more, getting to know each other better … It’s really a nice change … I hope that doesn’t go away once things return to normal — whatever normal will mean.”
Whatever normal will mean.
We are different now, aren’t we? It’s not hard to imagine a society in which large groups of people will politely decline to shake the hands of strangers. Elbow bumps replace fist pumps. Bro hugs are reserved for your actual brothers. But hopefully, some of the other ways we have learned to touch during this time will stay with us. When we ask, “How are you doing?” we will maintain eye contact until we receive a reply. We check up on one another more. We take hugging our parents and children for granted a bit less.
“Research shows there are measurable, physiological benefits to touching,” Field said. “But you don’t need to be a scientist to know it just feels good to touch another person. We were born to do it.”