Not to be hugged or to give a hug, I cannot even begin to imagine how that must be.

For me, lock down began in March and was over by May. A day or two after lock down I met a couple of friends for breakfast in a café in Hamilton. The drive to town felt strange as I slipped back into the sense of my daily commute into work, and when we saw each other we went in for the hug…just as we would normally; we hesitated momentarily, and with furrowed brows looked around at everyone else in the café and one of us asked… “Are we allowed to do this?” With slight uncertainty, we threw all caution to the wind and gave each other an overdue hug anyway.

Greetings say a lot about who we are, our culture, and how we see ourselves in relation to others. Being brought up in England my ‘go to’ has always been the handshake, and I still instinctively tend towards this for first time business greetings.  Greeting friends from mainland Europe always used to feel a little uncomfortable as I tried to ascertain whether it would involve one, two or three kisses on the cheek, and which cheek first; a lean in the wrong direction could result in a kiss landing somewhere other than the cheek, a dread that loomed large in a young girl’s mind. Kisses, as a child I believed were intimate and reserved only for those closest to us.

Pre Covid, kisses and hugs had become a much more acceptable way of greeting people, admittedly these were often air kisses, and for some, exaggeratedly so, but physical contact was more relaxed than when I was growing up.

Now I live in Aotearoa New Zealand. I have found time to reflect deeply on who I am, the impact of my upbringing, and what values sit deeply within me and guide my way of being, including how I greet people.

I’d like to share a little about the way people greet each other here in Aotearoa New Zealand, baring in mind this is through the eyes of an immigrant, but also with the knowledge that it has impacted on me and changed the way I greet others. In many places, particularly in the cities and the fast paced business world, you would see a very general Eurocentric greeting. A handshake, a token hug, or the touching of cheeks in a pretend kiss. This may or may not be accompanied by a brief introduction if meeting someone for the first time. However, Aotearoa is bi cultural, the tangata whenua (the people of the land) have their roots firmly imbedded in Māori culture, and the way Māori people greet each other is both significant and I think quite beautiful. If I am honest it used to terrify me, but I now realise the reason for my fear was ignorance…I did not understand the tikanga, the ritual, protocol and history that sits behind the greeting.

The most visible part of the greeting is the hongi where two people press their noses together so the ha, the breath of life, is exchanged and intermingled. This comes from the creation stories where the god Tāne-nui-ā-Rangi, moulded the first woman from the earth, and breathed life into her by pressing his nose against hers. The hongi however comes only after a process, once again born from history and tradition, when people come together. When two groups of people met, introductions would follow a set format. The manuhiri or visitors would be called onto the marae, accept the challenge to present themselves openly and honestly, each group would share their whakapapa or genealogy, where the history of their family is geographically located and with whom they have family connections. Once these formalities were completed the manuhiri offer a gift, generally in recognition of the hospitality being offered, and the manuhiri and tangata whenua hongi in recognition and acceptance of each other. On subsequent meetings a hongi would represent a reinforcement and continuation of the relationship.

This tikanga continues on marae today as respectful protocol to welcome manuhiri, but it is also seen in many aspects of everyday life, for example when visiting someone’s home, or when two organisations come together for wānanga (learning), kōrero (talks) or business.

The origins of the handshake come from a willingness to show you are not concealing weapons, the hug perhaps to show willingness to be vulnerable in an act of reconciliation. The kiss, the hongi, or touching of faces provides a way for souls, or life force to become one. For me, a hug can show true affection or a willingness to be open to a relationship. If I am honest I do not hug those I am not open to, and those who are genuinely known and dear to me will receive not only a hug, but a squeeze, and a kiss with my lips on their cheek. This sometimes involves a gentle hand on their head signalling I will hold them safe. This I know can be problematic for some as the head is sacred, and in some cultures should not be touched but I try to read the situation with grace. Mostly I am led by intuition but always with respect. As I was introduced to a young Māori client the other day, my instinct guided me to hug, the situation alerted me to caution, and respect for the client prompted me to open my arms and to ask her if a hug was acceptable. From the outside a little stunted perhaps, but from our relative positioning, it worked, was safe, respectful and ultimately it felt right for us both.

Going back to where I started. I cannot imagine what it would be like not giving or receiving a hug for over a year. I was fortunate enough to go into lockdown with my husband, two of my three children and my son’s girlfriend. By comparison it was for a short period and I remember it as a time of warmth, fondness and bonding. Many people around the world went into lockdown over a year ago, they went into it alone, and remained in their isolated bubble. My heart aches for their isolation. Although I am aware that for some lockdown continues, as a third wave of COVID-19 ripples around the globe, I hope we can be aware that everyone has experienced this time differently, we cannot really know how this unnatural period of isolation and taken its toll. I hope that as everyone, slowly and cautiously emerges from their isolation, we can all take extra steps to be kind to each other, to be gentle and mindful with how we greet each other, and remember everyone has their own experience of this journey.

Kia kaha (be strong)

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