A Brief Social History of Hugging (and Kissing), Especially Political

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday April 09, 2019 - 11:16:00 AM

Joe Biden is too old to run for president. That’s kind of a shame, since he missed his window in 2016 because of a personal tragedy, though I wouldn’t have voted for him then either. He does seem to be A Nice Guy.

It’s not just age, it’s attitude and competence and energy. Nancy Pelosi, who is as old as I am, is completely on her game for her current job, but I wouldn’t encourage her to launch a presidential campaign either.

Let’s not even talk about Bernie Sanders , okay? You can guess what I think.

However. The current brouhaha from people (okay, women) who accuse Joe Biden of crossing personal boundaries (no, this is not exactly about sex) is ridiculous.

I know this because I am even older than he is, by a few years, and I can remember how social styles in hugging behavior came and went during his and my lifetimes. 

In my childhood and early high school in the Midwest, no one did any recreational hugging. In my immediate family, WASPish in origin but somewhat Catholic in culture, there wasn’t even much family hugging, though we got along well with each other. 

When we moved to California in the late 50s we joined a more coastal culture, populated by some who’d previously lived in crowded East Coast cities and tended to stand closer together and talk louder and faster than people in the middle and southern parts of the country. But there was still not that much freelance hugging in those days. 

For a fifties teen, hugs and kisses were serious business. If you weren’t yet “going steady”, you would be soon if you indulged. Others didn’t do that stuff at all in polite society. 

That all changed in the 60s, most of which I spent in Ann Arbor. Lots of people both there and in California, where I visited often, got increasingly touchy-feely, holding hands in a circle at civil rights demonstrations while singing We Shall Overcome and so forth.  

Also in the 60s, some post-Vatican II Catholics, soon joined by other Christian denominations, revived the Kiss of Peace, a part of the Mass ritual going back to the early Christian Church. Cooler heads prevailed by 1969, when the title changed to “the sign of peace” and the expression became a warm handshake or occasionally a little, yes, hug. Doubtless Joe Biden, a Catholic, took part in all this personal contact. 

As many of us know, in the 1970s warm fuzzy stuff reached fever pitch. I think some of it was fueled by the growing acceptance of gay culture, which had traditionally included more European-style cheek pecking and enthusiastic embraces, especially in the entertainment industry. The rest of us learned how to do it, so that as 1980 approached it became conventional to give your friend, regardless of gender, a nice big hug to say hello or goodbye, maybe even the three-cheek bisou beloved of the French. 

This trend ended abruptly in the early 1980s with the advent of the AIDs era, particularly at the beginning when the transmission path was not well understood. People just stopped touching each other so much, at least on the self-aware coasts, because they were afraid of germs. 

By that time Joe Biden, who had lost his wife in 1972, was happily re-married and had been a senator for a decade. He was secure in both roles, so could be completely comfortable with an affable paternal persona in which pats on the back, little hugs and the occasional kiss were expected and appreciated. 

When things changed, he obviously never got the memo.  

The fact that he didn’t suggests that he’s a slow learner when it comes to cultural sensitivity, which alone might be a disqualifier for higher office. But also, not afraid of germs, a good thing. 

So the parade of self-righteous adherents of the politics of personal fulfillment who have belatedly denounced Joe Biden for violations of the 2019 definition of personal space which happened five, ten or fifteen years earlier is, I repeat, ridiculous. 

Equally annoying is the tsk-tsk from spectators who are offended when he says, now, that he didn’t mean anything by what he did back then. Intent counts, big-time. 

( That’s why, Daisy May, we are still in the dark about all that collusion/conspiracy Trumpery even after Mueller has supposedly reported on what happened. Intent’s the key to many crimes.) 

Me, I’m still happy when I encounter old friends to get and give a hug, all genders eligible. When my dear friend comes in from Paris I dutifully present my cheeks for three kisses. With Italians, I know to keep it to two, and no actual kisses, just cheek-to-cheek. In LA, air kisses are still in vogue. I’d rather no one would slap me heartily on the back as a greeting, but that’s just me. 

But kindergarten teachers no longer may hug their kids with skinned knees, a big loss. 

I’m happy to say that my granddaughters, now polished young women, are still good for a hearty hug for Grandma on occasion. Not only that, I’m pleased to squeeze my friends’ sweet-smelling grandbabies if they’re offered, and no one’s complained yet. 

I do notice that, among the few remaining elderly pols in my ever-shrinking age cohort, people are so glad to discover that old allies or even honorable opponents are still alive that big hugs and warm kisses are the norm. On election nights, if we win (or at least think we do), there are hugs all around regardless of age or gender, and even losers get sympathetic embraces from compañeros. 

Society is always developing new rules for acceptable behavior. I was brought up to think that a lady waits to be introduced to new acquaintances, but the savvy young extend their hands for shaking immediately and introduce themselves at least by first names, though last names wait for further intimacy. 

It would be most unfortunate if the justifiable outrage against sexual aggression exemplified by the MeToo furor were allowed to constrict the healthy spontaneous expression of real non-sexual personal affection among friends and allies. It’s a cold world out here these days, and we need all the love we can get (platonic of course). 

Contrarian that I am, I notice that the Biden dust-up has made me more inclined to display affection, friendship or just approbation physically. I still won’t vote for Joe, but he can rest his hands on my shoulders any time he’s in town…