TORONTO — As provinces begin to loosen COVID-19 restrictions and vaccination rates increase, many Canadians can’t wait to start hugging their friends and family for the first time in over a year.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control says that fully vaccinated Americans can hug and take off their masks indoors. And although health officials in Canada have yet to offer similar guidelines, that hasn’t stopped many Canadians from making plans with their loved ones.
But not all Canadians, even those who are fully vaccinated, are eager to say goodbye to physical distancing or masks.
Experts agree: if you plan on meeting up with someone and would like to hug, it’s best to ask first.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind on how to navigate these social situations.
ASK FOR CONSENT
“What we need to do as human beings, is use, first of all, our language capacity to pre-arrange and understand each other’s viewpoint on what the social norms are gonna go back to right now,” said Toronto-based human behaviour and body language expert Mark Bowden, in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca
One way of doing so is sending an email or a message to lay out some COVID-19 ground rules and explain what you’re comfortable with before meeting up.
“If you and I were great friends and I would normally give you a hug, I might want to send you an email and say, ‘Hey, I know we’re going to meet up together on Wednesday. Just checking in with you, I know normally I’d have given you a hug when we meet. How you feeling about this?’” Bowden suggests.
“I could say, ‘Look, here’s my viewpoint on it. I’ve got a couple of vaccinations. I know you’re vaccinated. I’m absolutely OK, I feel really safe. I’m absolutely OK to going back to our usual behaviours.”
Farrah Khan, a Toronto-based consent educator and manager of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, agrees. She says having a conversation before meeting up can also allow the opportunity for individuals who are still uncomfortable with hugging or taking off their mask to communicate what they’re comfortable with.
“I think it’s really about naming your boundaries, even before meeting up with that person, thinking about what your guest’s ‘non-negotiables’ are, what are the things that you’re like, ‘This is a hard no for me,’” Khan told CTVNews.ca over the phone.
Khan says the practice of asking for consent is important in all social interactions, not just when it comes to sexual activity.
“At our team, we always say consent comes first everywhere. No matter if it’s an interaction with a friend, with a family member, a loved one, or someone you’re in a romantic relationship with. Consent is always a part of it,” Khan explained.
As a silver lining to the pandemic, Khan agrees that the pandemic has underscored the importance of asking for consent throughout our daily lives.
“I think people have had to practice, providing informed consent,” said Khan. “The thing is that people have a right to put boundaries on how they want to interact with other people”
READ BODY LANGUAGE
Even after you’ve set out the ground rules beforehand and agree to hug your friend, they might change their mind later, and that’s OK.
“The thing about consent is it’s ongoing. It’s not a contract when you talk to someone beforehand,” said Khan.
“I might’ve said, ‘I’m really excited about seeing you, I’m really excited about hugging,’ and then I see you, and I’m like,’ ‘Oh, actually I don’t feel like hugging, I’m not feeling that personal touch.’”
If their arms are crossed, if their body language appears stiff, or if they’re standing or sitting distanced from you, Khan says these are signs that the person may not be comfortable getting close.
“I think there’s lots of ways that people can tell us non verbally, that they do not want to hug or touch or engaged in certain ways.”
If you’re going for a hug with someone who’s already agreed to hugging, Bowden suggests taking it slower given that people may still be apprehensive about hugging, even if they’ve given consent earlier.
“I’ve got to be slower with my movements so that they are clearer, I’ve got to be bigger with my movements so they are clearer,” said Bowden. “So, as I approach you… what I’m going to do is slow right down and give you a big open gesture to remind you, ‘this is what we’re doing.’”
Bowden also recommends paying close attention to the other person’s body language. If the other person isn’t mirroring your “big open gesture” for a hug and is hesitating, Bowden suggests asking for or waiting for verbal confirmation whether or not they’re still interested in a hug.
“Talk about it beforehand. Make arrangements, and then remain adaptable and be really, really clear with what we’re suggesting non-verbally,” Bowden said.