Mata Amrita Goes To New York Times

Remember that I had written recently that the pandemic is likely to change the practice of hugging, and the Mata Amrita Index? Now the New York Times has also covered it (possibly paywalled). It includes helpful graphics on “how to hug and how not to hug”.

It is an interesting article, quoting an expert on aerosols about what is the best way to hug. From what I gather, the key is to keep your faces turned away from each other. As long as you maintain this, hugging should still be fine.

[…] the safest thing is to avoid hugs. But if you need a hug, take precautions. Wear a mask. Hug outdoors. Try to avoid touching the other person’s body or clothes with your face and your mask. Don’t hug someone who is coughing or has other symptoms.

And remember that some hugs are riskier than others. Point your faces in opposite directions — the position of your face matters most. Don’t talk or cough while you’re hugging. And do it quickly. Approach each other and briefly embrace. When you are done, don’t linger. Back away quickly so you don’t breathe into each other’s faces. Wash your hands afterward.

Most of this seems fine. Only the last bit seems a bit difficult to implement – how do you wash your hands soon after hugging someone without offending them? I mean – I face this problem already. There are many people I come across whose hands I shake (this is all pre-pandemic) which leave me queasy and at unease until I have washed my hands. The challenge in this situation is how to efficiently wash your hands without making it explicit that the handshake wasn’t a pleasant one.

My favourite bit in the article, however, is the last one. It pertains to the “quality of hugs” that I’ve been talking about for a while now, and also happens to bring in Marie Kondo into the picture.

Dr. Marr noted that because the risk of a quick hug with precautions is very low but not zero, people should choose their hugs wisely.

“I would hug close friends, but I would skip more casual hugs,” Dr. Marr said. “I would take the Marie Kondo approach — the hug has to spark joy.”

How do you change Mata Amrita Index?

Over five years ago, I had introduced the concept of the Mata Amrita Index on this blog. Just to refresh your memories, it refers to the probability that a person will hug any random person she meets. You can also define bilateral Mata Amrita Index, which is the probability that a given pair of people hug when they meet.

Now, after I wrote that post I realise that the Mata Amrita Index is a rather cultural thing – some cultures are more predisposed to hugging than others. I, for example, for whatever reason, am quite queasy about hugging and won’t do so unless I know the counterparty quite well. More importantly than the queasiness, I want to avoid the awkwardness when I offer a hug which makes the other person queasy because they are not prepared for it (this happened the very first time I met the person who is now my wife,btw). For others, hugging comes much more naturally, and if such people initiate a hug to me, I’m happy to continue with the process. But with some others I’ve noticed that both of us are not sure if it’s okay to hug and it ends up in a weird handshake while it might have been a hug!

Anyway, the point of this post is whether the bilateral Mata Amrita Index between a pair of people can change over time, and if so, what the conditions are under which it changes. We will leave romantic or hopefully-romantic or possibly-romantic relationships out of this discussion – the human touch works in those situations in completely different ways. So the question is under what circumstances can the bilateral Mata Amrita Index between a pair of people change over time? And let’s be nice on this blog, and discuss only about increase in MAI, not decrease.

So what are the circumstances under which the bilateral MAI between a pair of people increase over time? One is the frequency of meeting. If you meet someone very regularly, you get into a particular routine on how you greet each other – be it a handshake or a hug or a namaste or a feet-touch or a cheek-peck. Since you are meeting each other regularly, both of you remember the established protocol. And both instinctively go for it. Even if you want to change protocol, the other person is so used to it that they continue. And considering that you can’t command someone to hug you (unless you are an “aunty”) you end up sticking to protocol!

If you meet each other infrequently, on the other hand, you are likely to have forgotten whatever protocol existed, and so there is a higher probability of changing protocol, and so there is a chance that you can enhance your Mata Amrita Index. It helps if it’s been so long since you last met that either of you has undergone a culture-changing experience (like moving to a new country, or a new job, or a new school, for example), which can change the way you greet and can use as an excuse if the counterparty objects to your way of greeting.

Then, if you are meeting after a long time and for some reason you have got closer in the interval (in terms of things you’ve spoken about with each other since the last time you met, for example), it is again okay to explore an enhancement of the Mata Amrita Index the next time you meet.

There is also the company you keep. Let’s say A, B and C are meeting. Whether it’s due to their past bilateral MAI, or individual MAI, A and B hug, and then B and C hug. Now it becomes socially awkward for A and C not to hug, so they end up hugging each other, and enhancing their MAI. The next time they meet, this enhancement will be in their mind, and can lead to further enhancement in MAI. This can also work the other way – if you are in a large group and only two of you in that group have a high bilateral MAI, then it becomes awkward for you to hug when everyone else is being all prude and shaking hands. That can decrease MAI.

There is another way the company you keep can end up decreasing MAI. Again, if A,B and C meet, and A-B have a high bilateral MAI. Let’s say that A is meeting C for the first time. Before A hugs B, she evaluates is she is also okay hugging C (since not doing so might be awkward), and that might lead A to not hug B!

This is complicated business! Do you know any way in which the Mata Amrita Index can be enhanced? Or diminished? Do write in!