05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How the Swine Have Stopped Us from Hugging

By now, you've no doubt heard about the killer flu that originated in Mexico. Dozens of people are dead in that country, and cases have sprung up in the United States. In all likelihood, this virus -- an offshoot of swine flu -- will run its course long before the country turns into something out of Stephen King's The Stand. Just in case, however, I suggest you check out that sore throat that's been bothering you (it's probably nothing...)

Regardless, the flu outbreak reminded me of what, at first glance, seems to be a completely unrelated incident that happened a few weeks ago.

It wasn't happy hour. It was more like unhappy hour, and it was held at a bar near my former place of employment. At the end of this going-away party for all of us who had just been downsized (see my earlier post on this), the time came to say goodbye to my former colleagues, make sincere but doomed promises to stay in touch, and exchange final hugs.

Actually, I pretty much had to skip that last one.

You see, I live in the Midwest, and most of my ex-coworkers are born-and-bred white middle Americans. As such, they are as comfortable with the idea of hugging as China is with dissent.

One of my friends, a woman I had worked with for years, announced beforehand that she rarely hugged her family members and never her friends, so I would have to settle for a handshake. Her preemptive strike was because she knew my propensity to embrace people.

It's not that I'm touchy-feely. Indeed, I've been accused of being reserved, aloof, and even insensitive. On any given personality test, I always come back as introverted and quiet (not shy; there's a difference). Bubbly and outgoing are among the last adjectives one would use to describe me.

So where does all this hugging come from? You guessed it: the Latino gene.

Hispanics hug out of instinct. We hug loved ones and acquaintances. We hug when saying hello or goodbye. We hug when overjoyed and when offering condolences. And yes, we will even hug you.

The cultural reasons for this are unknown to me. But it's a very real phenomenon. Suffice to say, we're perplexed at white America's reticence and (I'll just say it) uptight attitude about being touched.

This can lead to painful interactions, which I have witnessed at times, where the white person sticks out a hand, and the Hispanic person looks at it as if mystified at what to do with the offending object. Depending on the relationship and the setting, you may as well spit in a Latino's face if a handshake is the best you can offer.

Even my wife, of fine German-Irish stock, was thrown off by my tendency to wrap my arms around people. I hugged her once when we were still in the "just friends" stage of our relationship, and she figured I was up to something... ok, she was right about that one. But that's not usually the case.

The point is that my wife, who is extroverted and expressive, was confused by my behavior. These days, of course, she reciprocates the bone-crushing clasps that my family dishes out as greetings. It's what we do.

Until the flu outbreak, I presumed that every American would eventually follow the example of Hispanics (who, as I've stated many times before, are clearly taking over the country). Either that, or they would withdraw into a cold world where the nearest one gets to being touched is receiving an extra emoticon on the latest text message.

But the virus has forced me to reconsider that position. That's because what we Latinos have for so long regarded as a cultural positive has backfired on us. That's right -- the Latino impulse to embrace people may help to spread the swine flu.

Physical contact is a godsend for the virus, which looks for any opportunity to jump from person to person. As such, it must have come as a shock to the Mexican populace that, in addition to fearing for their lives, they are being told to avoid hugging and that there should be "no kissing to say hello" and "no close contact" with others.

Of course, being forced to limit physical interaction is psychologically upsetting to people of any culture, but even more so for Latinos. As one Mexican woman said, "Mexico is a social place. People like to go out and be together. The sickness has taken that away."

And it's also taken away, at least temporarily, the Latino drive to be affectionate and demonstrative. Good Hispanics everywhere must fight their natural tendencies out of the fear that a quick squeeze of a friend could lead to an unpleasant death for everyone involved. That means no hugging, my amigos.

But the most disturbing thing about this epidemic -- aside from the inconvenient potential it has to cause whole civilizations to collapse -- is that it has turned a virtue into a detriment.

Latinos now have to wonder if maybe those Scandinavians, with their virus-killing cold weather and contagion-limiting handshakes, are on to something after all.