June 21. Towards the end of my book on solitude, I addressed the argument that the internet was killing face-to-face speech. A range of critics, particularly the American psychologist Sherry Turkle, claimed that immersion in digital technology was destroying both the incidence and the skill of talking one to another.
There was clearly substance in the analysis of current modes of interpersonal communication. The problem was the temporal context for such a conclusion. Those writing about the digital revolution tend to regard modern history as beginning with the introduction of the i-phone in 2007, the rest of history starting with the invention of the internet in 1990, and all the eras before that as the stone age about which little is known or needs to be known. In fact we have very little information about the volume of private speech earlier in the twentieth century, or at any time before that. I ended my discussion by writing: “Whether there was a moment in late modernity when peak conversation was reached and passed requires further investigation.” (p. 252) I would love to write a book answering this question, but I have yet to find the evidential base for doing so.
What is true of face-to-face exchange applies also to body-to-body contact. Commentary on the pandemic lockdown is full of concerns about restrictions on physical embrace. Again there is a case to be made. In general terms, the anguish of suffering is nowhere better captured than in the difficulty the bereaved have found in offering bodily warmth to each other. In my own case, nothing expresses the pain caused by enforced shielding so much as my inability to hug my children and my grandchildren.
But beyond those extremes of emotional reassurance, what else have I and others lost in this regard? I am, after all, a child of my culture, and in the family of nations the English are renowned for the distance they keep from each other. The Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper writes, “Americans won’t touch strangers, the French won’t talk to them, but the British neither touch nor talk to them.”* The more crowded our island has become, the more expert we have learned to be in avoiding physical contact in public spaces. The list of those whom we would expect to greet with anything more that a quick handshake is for most people very short. These are cultural traits of long standing. Beyond my parents, I don’t myself recall much if any physical contact when growing up even with aunts, uncles and grandparents, let alone friends and more distant relations. As an adult my greatest exposure to the flesh of strangers has been in the artificial context of a degree ceremony where hundreds of hot, cold, dry, sweaty palms are grasped as the graduands walk across the stage.
It may be that with more diverse metropolitan communities, full of people who have brought with them different expectations of physical contact, we have in recent years learned to be more relaxed about embracing others. On the other hand, the sharp rise in awareness of inappropriate touching has caused renewed anxieties. There is mounting evidence from social psychologists that hugging is good for you, releasing endorphins that improve physical and mental health. But still the instinct when seeking greater wellbeing is to get on an exercise bike, or occupy a private yoga mat. Mindfulness begins with listening to your breathing, not with engaging with the bodily rhythms of another.
When this crisis is over, we need to learn how to hug more and hug better.
*Simon Kuper, ‘Don’t touch me I’m British’, Financial Times, March 4, 2011.