'Tis the season to step away from the tipsy aunt. To run like the wind from graspy workmates and to avoid visitors from continents where it's okay to kiss your cheeks once, twice, seriously do you people have no personal boundaries?
In New Zealand, we like to keep at least one bus seat between ourselves and the next person. We are kind and we are caring but if you are a stranger crying in the street we will gently paw the invisible force field surrounding your distraught body long before we will actually touch you.
Recently, we have begun to deploy the American phrase "reaching out". You should know that zero body parts will collide when your neighbour says "I'm reaching out to gauge community interest in the kerbside recycling of organic parsley seed."
We're a nation that considers itself connected, so long as we don't have to, you know, connect.
Except in December. As the year comes to a close and we are reminded to count our blessings and glad our tidings, we get a bit touchy-feely. We pat and pet, handshake and hug. We express ourselves fully and physically. For some of us this is worse than getting a scented candle for Christmas.
Expert advice? Fear the feel and do it anyway.
Touch (mostly) makes us better people. Studies have shown that touch can decrease your heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. Touch can also increase levels of oxytocin, the so-called "love" hormone. One don't-try-this-on-Queen-St experiment found that passengers who touched a bus driver while requesting a free trip were more likely to receive said trip; in other studies, elderly people were observed eating healthier foods following touch and car dealers who touched potential customers received more positive ratings than those who kept their hands to themselves. (Rider: bad touching is bad touching is bad touching - you probably don't need to read a scientific study to know this).
Touch is considered so important to child development, that earlier this year Plunket partnered a nappy company (yes, it was Huggies) to launch a campaign called Make Time for Hugs.
Claudia Aull, Mike Cameron and now 10-month-old daughter Harper, were one of the poster families.
"Prior to having Harper, I wasn't the person who would go up and give everyone a hug at parties," says Claudia, 31. "Now that I have a baby, I'm a lot more touchy-feely. And I'm 100 per cent very touchy-feely with her."
More than 600 research papers have been published on the therapeutic power of touch on human babies. Among the benefits, as listed by one Canadian review of the available literature: faster weight gain, shorter hospital stays, improved sleep, stronger immune systems and increased social skills.
Aull says the benefits go both ways.
"I had no idea just how much you were giving up, having a baby. I don't resent any of it. I'm happy for it and I just adore her. But it's a lot. It's a lot.
"You can't control anything. Mike could go to work and still feel like he was smashing it. You get that sense of achievement every day, like you're achieving certain goals. As a new mum, whole days can go buy where you don't know whether you've done a good job. Of course you have, but you don't feel like that all the time."
That, she says, is where hugging comes in handy.
"When you feel like you're failing and you feel like things aren't exactly going their best, you can sit down with that baby, whom you love so, so much, and it's almost like time can stop for a second. Things just chill. You can just forget the stupid 'to do' list you wrote for yourself that morning. Who cares? As long as you wrote 'get dressed' you're like - nailed something!"
Aull says when Harper hit three months, "it definitely felt like she was hugging me back - and it just grows from there . . . as a little person, she has different needs and wants, and thankfully and easily, the answer to lots of those is a cuddle. Which is pretty amazing!"
Today: " I have become a bit of a hugger, I'm not going to lie. I'm a tired hugger . . . actually, maybe I'm just leaning on people for a little nap?!"
Karen Magrath, Plunket's national adviser for well child and parenting, says "when you wrap a wee one in your arms, you're actually building the foundation of their brain. We should never underestimate the value of simply being close to young children".
And the benefit to caregivers? "It forms the basis of their transition into being parents . . . it's really important that babies have predictable, principal caregivers. It doesn't have to be the same person all the time, but there does need to be a level of predictability."
Skin is the first of our sense organs to develop. Before we can see or speak, we can feel. And, weirdly, the more we are cuddled and made to feel loved, the happier we are to venture out on our own. When we are very small, Magrath says, we develop a circle of security around us - the more highly developed that circle, the more comfortable children become about being away from their caregiver. The child who visually locks on to you over the back of their seat on a plane?
"Humans are just wired to connect with others . . . if they're looking over the back of the person who is holding them, they're secure and they're just trying to work out why you look different."
Parenting, Magrath says, doesn't always look perfect - and there is a lot of pressure on today's parents to be "perfect". But it's hard to get hugging wrong.
"It doesn't have to be complicated, it doesn't have to be expensive. Just being there - you can't really do it wrong. And it's the most low-cost intervention we have."
Touch is the physical sensation you get when neural receptors (mostly on your skin) are activated. Scientists have previously proved that six specific emotions - fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust and surprise - can be accurately communicated via the face or voice and touch has always been considered an intensifier of these cues. But in 2009, researchers determined touch alone could be used to convey emotions. Blindfolded volunteers were able to decode specific emotions with up to 78 per cent accuracy. Researcher Matthew Hertenstein told Psychology Today the results were surprising - he had predicted the accuracy would be at "chance" level, or about 25 per cent: "This is a touch-phobic society," Hertenstein said. "We're not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily."
How do you hug? Your answer will depend on many factors, and not the least of those will be culture and gender. Norm Watson, 65, describes himself as a "student of hugging". But as a former facilitator for Auckland's Essentially Men's weekend workshops, he was also a hugging tutor.
"Part of the process is, okay, be in touch with your feelings, be in touch with your body and not be so resistant or scared when another man goes to hug you."
Watson says New Zealand men are more relaxed about physical contact than they used to be, but the Kiwi male hug is, often, still three hard bashes on the back; a "good on ya, mate" walloping.
"Bang! Bang! Bang! 'I'm not gay'. That's one we try to avoid in workshops."
Also on the "must try harder" list: The "A-frame" (two men, who hug with just the top portion of their bodies, determined to ensure their genitalia don't connect) and the "side-on" a bumbling, clumsy hug that ends up with most participants wondering where they should put their arms.
Watson recommends using visual signals to get permission for physical contact and then moving in for the hug "in a relaxed and natural manner" for an absolute minimum of three seconds.
"Try to be present for what's going on for you, and enjoy the process."
At the sessions Watson facilitated, men would typically spend up to half an hour wandering the room, practising hugs with different people.
"I did have the experience of attending a workshop where we explored what was called the 'longer hug'. We ended up hugging for 45 minutes, and I didn't know this guy from a bar of soap. You move through all sorts of phases, from 'this is kind of novel and cool' to 'hang on, shouldn't we finish now?' But it's all nonverbal. Then you need to shift your body a bit, then you relax and go into a dream state, but at the end, I actually knew this guy pretty well . . . we had an understanding that had been achieved through physical contact."
The benefits, Watson says, are enormous.
"It might make you more comfortable in your own skin. The more you hug, the less uptight you feel and the less fearful you'll feel about intimacy . . . it's good for your wife, or your partner or your kids . . . hugging is a healing experience. Generally, people relax, and relaxing is good for your body and your mind and your health."
Underneath it all, Watson says, "we like connection. We're social animals. The latest stuff on addiction - drug, sex, alcohol, work, food - is that a lot of it is about disconnection. So the more you connect yourself with others, you'll find that you meet those needs.
"It's a natural thing to hug. And we've learned to be unnatural."
That is just fine with Susie Wilson, a New Zealand-born, Australian-based etiquette expert, who says excessive physical contact should only be used in appropriate circumstances. In her book, that does not include the workplace.
Wilson says the handshake, not the hug, is the universally acceptable form of touch. (Though she does recommend a discreet wiping of the palms, eye contact and "an absolutely gorgeous smile").
New Zealanders, Wilson says, are less demonstrative than Australians - when she moved across the Tasman, she was shocked at the number of people (particularly men) who moved in for more than a handshake.
"It's all kissy-kissy and oh my gosh, please do not! I don't know you, I haven't given you permission to touch my person."
The day before this interview, she says, she was at a meeting with the male and female directors of a company.
"She put her hand out, and he went to kiss me!" Wilson's reaction? "I said to him, 'sweetie, you need to take me out for dinner first'."