I’m not quite sure when it happened, but the human hug has evolved into a virtual landmine of social greetings that threatens global commerce and world peace.
OK, maybe that last part is a bit of a massive exaggeration (mea culpa: I’ve been watching too much GOP-TV lately, starring The Donald Clown). But buried within even the broadest hyperbole is a kernel of truth and here is mine: I have no idea who to hug or when to hug and that simple paradigm of confusion gives birth to a host of awkward situations that now tips this particular risk/reward element into the red zone for me.
What was once a ritual of physical intimacy reserved for family members and close personal friends has seeped into day-to-day human interactions at work and life. And when you add other human dimensions that involve gender sensitivities, age relativity, relationship boundaries, disparate levels of power in business (supervisor/subordinate) height variations (I’m 6 feet 4 inches and hugging anyone shorter than 5 feet tall requires a delicate balance of contortion and precision), etc. – many “hug” situations are like a television game show where you never know when a buzzer will go off and you’ll fall through a trap door into a dark pit of awkwardness.
I know. It happened to me.
A short while ago I was part of a large agency/client meeting and after a grueling, but successful, three-hour period, the senior client executive was so elated with the outcome that she walked around the table hugging everyone in the room. When she got to me, she took an extra moment to further express her appreciation for our work, followed by an enthusiastic hug, along with the whispered comment from her mouth to my left ear across a distance of approximately two, less-than-comfortable inches, “You guys are great. Thank you.”
While there was no inappropriate intent on the part of my client, it felt awkward. Maybe we are all too desensitized about hugging to even register the correct response to events like this? By what mechanism could I have said, “No hug, please” without causing embarrassment for her, me and everyone in the room, along with the possibility of harming an important business relationship?
A week later I was at another business event in Chicago with the same executive and as she approached me with her arms extended, I roboticly extended my arms in preparation for the awkward business hug – but at the last second, her right arm stiffened (think Heisman football trophy pose), and she went for the handshake instead, causing me to perform a ‘60s dance move as I transitioned from hug to handshake mode in one painful second.
While it was certainly her prerogative as the hugger to hug or not hug (during both exchanges), how can the hug-ee refuse a hug without causing even greater discomfort than from the hug itself?
Another challenge occurs when you happen to be married to a serial hugger, as I am. We can’t go to a sports event or restaurant without a dozen hugs taking place. Friends, parents of our kid’s classmates, neighbors, colleagues of mine at work, waitresses, airline pilots – everyone gets a big hug from Katie, often as a greeting, followed by another round during goodbyes.
Which is wonderful for my wife, because hugging is a natural extension of her warmth and humanity. But I’m usually left standing there, staring off into another galaxy during the inevitable and embarrassing moment when the person hugging my wife suddenly realizes that I’m in close proximity and then they’re forced to decide in mere nanoseconds:
• Should I throw Steve a charity hug?
• Should I ignore Steve since he seems currently focused on the Milky Way?
• Should I shake Steve’s hand and establish a marital hug disparity?
Here in Maine the issue of reckless hugging goes well beyond social awkwardness, into the realm of being a health hazard, especially during flu season. How many of the 1,000-2,000 estimated cases of the flu each year could be prevented with a November-April hug moratorium?
There are dozens of books and stories on the subject of hugging and a bus full of etiquette experts, each with their own brand of advice. The general consensus involves a few core tips: always respect the other person’s space, when in doubt ask the other person for permission, and limit each hug to just a second or two.
Interpreting the subjective dimensions of space? Navigating permission-based hugging with legal counsel standing-by on speed-dial? Carrying around a stopwatch for duration compliance?
It’s all too confusing.
So going forward, I’m asking everyone to please recognize and respect my request that unless you are one of my immediate family members, a direct blood relative (subcategory: the ones I still speak with) or a close personal friend with 10-plus years of history between us, please stop hugging me.
We can shake hands. We can fist-bump. I’ll even accept bro hugs, which are modified handshakes with a slight forward tilt.
But that’s it for me. I’m hug-free.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.