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March 18, 2008

Who You Hug -- And How

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't much like hugging. Maybe it has to do with my Northern European ancestry -- those reserved, cold people from 45 degrees latitude and higher. My parents pretty much stopped hugging me after I reached age 12.

My wife, on the other hand, loves hugging and wonders about me. You see, her ancestry is Scandinavian and that means ...

[End of ethnic stereotyping. Return to drawing board.]

As I was about to say, hugging comes in many forms. The bear hug. The group hug of athletes when a goal has been scored. Sympathy hugs at funerals. Lovers' hugs.

Then there are those odd, slow-motion semi-hugs. I saw one today while I was sipping coffee trying to come up with things to blog about. One of the donut shop employees was standing outside the doorway and an acquaintance of his walked up. They greeted with one of those hugs: His arms stiffened, his elbows locked as he swung his arms past her sides. I don't quite recall the form of her hug, though I have the impression that her posture was more normal. But both of them were in slow-motion.

I took this to be a ritual hug of some kind, certainly on the guy's part. The girl wasn't exactly a babe, so I suspect that he was hugging her because he felt he had no alternative: she expected one. Of course I could well have gotten this all wrong. After all, as I mentioned above, I am not of the hug-culture.

I sometimes see these choreographed hugs in business settings where, for some reason I don't quite understand, hugging is expected, but it dare not be mistaken for being something sexual (regardless of what the huggers are actually thinking).

Twenty or so years ago I was looking up stuff at a college library when a female student walked into the area and was greeted by another girl who was studying there. They too performed one of those ritualistic, slow hugs, chatted briefly and then left. In this case, I suspected (because of other visual clues painting a gestalt) that they might have been Lesbians. Again, I can't say for sure.

There seems to be a lot related to hugging, both manifest and hidden, and I am left confused by it all. Unfortunately, when I was in grad school there was no Sociology of Hugging class.



posted by Donald at March 18, 2008


Don't care for the new and pervasive compulsion to hug. A handshake is sounder for about every possible reason. When I attend church services they sometimes have some sort of hug your neighbor moment which I really dislike.

I've been in AA for many years and live in Portland and this hugging creeps me out. However, recently I did use it to give a signal. At the conclusion of an evening among friends, I gave a vague hug to all because they require it, but to one fellow who is a compulsive hugger I offered my hand. I did this to indicate that terms had changed and he had to accept acquaintanceship on my terms; that I would not compromise with him (nor take my eyes off of him).

A handshake is as open a gesture and as serviceable a gesture as one needs.

Posted by: Larry on March 18, 2008 7:39 PM

I come from huggers on one side and non-huggers on the other. The personalities can more-or-less be predicted by the hugginess. I prefer the huggers.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 18, 2008 8:37 PM

I'm of Upper Midwest Norwegian-Swedish stock...we weren't huggers. My mom passed away a couple of years ago and I regret not hugging her more. My wife is Korean-American. She likes to cuddle. Isn't that a form of hugging? I'm not a fan of hugging people I've just met. I'm more of a handshake kind of guy. We've fallen in with a group of "superficial" huggers through my wife's job. A little bit of that goes a long way for me, but utimately I think hugging (a loved one) is good for the "soul."

Posted by: Scott on March 18, 2008 10:19 PM

I'm from a most definitely non-hugging background and like it that way. Hugs just don't float my boat, so to speak.

Posted by: Peter on March 18, 2008 10:39 PM

I bet liberals are more likely to be huggers. Thoughts?

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 19, 2008 12:20 AM

My mom's Scotch-Irish side of the family hugs like nobody's business, and I can't stand it. My dad's French-Japanese side doesn't hug, god bless them.

Forced hugs are bad, but I like organic ones a lot. Like when your friend hasn't seen you in several days and she runs up to you once she sees you, and does a little jump into your space just before you hug each other hard, swerving side to side. With these natural hugs, you can literally feel their enthusiasm and energy.

Like so many other things, it helps if they're 18.

Posted by: agnostic on March 19, 2008 5:46 AM

In my experience, in North America, amongst people of European descent, women are more huggy than men. Less taboo for them. Guys only hug if they first make a joke about it; otherwise, it's not masculine, and seems rather faggy.

Posted by: Will S. on March 19, 2008 8:38 AM

I sometimes wish that the Japanese custom of bowing had caught on in America.

Posted by: Peter on March 19, 2008 9:17 AM

I need a lapel pin that reads: No hugs please, I'm German. (That is, my father's parents were German-born and not prone to adult hugs among males or across the sexes; my mother's people were waspy/Scots-Irish and about the same, but
"No hugs please, I'm white" or "No hugs please, I'm a mutt" don't have the same ring to me.)

I think the epidemic of hugging traces to several convergent factors. There's the
easier acceptance of emotional expressiveness among a lot of non-Northern European ethnics and
African-Americans, and the overall jockification of the culture, where high-fiving and physical contact are normal. None of that comes naturally to me, and I particularly dislike the expectation that one should be ready to hug almost any acquaintance at almost any time.

I'll tell you what's even creepier though. I used to have a supervisor who would shake your hand and not let go--he'd just stand sidewise to you and chat away, maybe putting his other hand on your shoulder. I don't have any reason to think he was gay or anything (he did that with everybody), and I've never encountered the like since. THAT was weird.

Posted by: Narr on March 19, 2008 9:28 AM

Though I'm totally a northern-Euro-descended mutt, I could hug gals 'till the seasons change. Vulgar interpretation: It's the closest thing to legit copping-a-feel that we have. Generous interpretation: sweet! Nice! Anyway, feels like a natural way to express fondness and glad-to-see-you-ness.

The male hug, though ... I shudder. I'm so awkward with it that I basically forbid it. The occasional times when it happens anyway (someone gets it underway and it'd be more awkward to put it off than see it through) I'm about as maladroit as can be. Which arm goes on top? Does back-slapping have to occur?

When did guy-hugging become de rigeur? And why? I have a dim impression that it had something to do with rap/hiphop. The way kids in that scene seem to pick up a lot of bullshit "fighter" attitude -- boxers lurching around threateningly in slo-mo, and then giving each other these ritualized "Yeah, baby, life's tough" embraces. I remember seeing teen boys giving each other these boxer-type hugs, and as far as I could tell it radiated "Yeah, man, we survived another one, didn't we?" Like getting through the day was the equivalent of surviving a prize fight or something .It all strikes me as amazingly melodramatic.

But who knows, maybe I'm just prissy. Anyway, a big thumbs down on the male hug from me. Here's hoping fashions change and we go back to good solid handshakes. I like Peter's endorsement of the Japanese-style bow too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 19, 2008 11:13 AM

It's just one more reason where none is needed to avoid human contact altogether.

Posted by: Brian on March 19, 2008 11:42 AM

I just re-watched every episode of The Sopranos, so right now hugging reminds me of gangsters. Which makes me a little nervous. Hug me if you wish, just don't kill me.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on March 19, 2008 11:43 AM

I used to have a supervisor who would shake your hand and not let go

Problem solved.

Posted by: Peter on March 19, 2008 11:52 AM

The hug at arm's length (no touching chests) and the air kiss are staples of the music biz, and probably of show biz in general.

This hugging has definite purpose. The music biz and show biz are bitterly competitive, back stabbing, jealousy ridden universes.

My feeling is that the hug and air kiss are meant to lessen to some degree the blood lust with a ritual public display of at least feigned affection.

I don't man hug much, with the exception of my friend of longest duration... who just happens to be gay. (Oddly, I watched the Seinfeld "Not that there's anything wrong with that" episode last night.) My friend often says, with a tone of sadness, how great it would be if we could be such great friends... and...

However, I know better. My friend is one of those gay men who is obsessed with breaking the cherry of a straight macho man. Once he does, he loses all interest. I give him a big hug every time I see him as a sort of compensation. Well, he often initiates the hugging.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 19, 2008 12:07 PM

I have a 22-y-o son who hugs his mother (which is fine with everyone) and me (which is awkward); he didn't get that from me, so it must be a generational thing.


Posted by: Narr on March 19, 2008 12:08 PM

"I don't much like hugging. Maybe it has to do with my Northern European ancestry..."

Hm. Then how to explain my complete aversion to hugging -- or even touching strangers unless absolutely necessary -- despite my southern Italy origins. At least you have an excuse.

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on March 19, 2008 1:47 PM

I come from a nonhugging family and am not comfortable with it. But my dad, a happy and gregarious man, had a way of throwing an arm around the shoulder of his sons that was wonderful and affectionate. It was a nonhug that richly conveyed caring.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on March 19, 2008 1:52 PM

Between a mother from northern New England and a father whose childhood had more than its fair share of difficulties, most physical displays of affection were minimal and strained when I was growing up. My wife and I made every effort to hug our daughter (and each other) frequently to compensate in a sense. This lessened (but did not eliminate) my awkwardness when dealing with hugging as a form of greeting or departure. Nevertheless, I now have many friends and acquaintences with whom I will share a hug as a greeting. Hugs with males I've just met, while rare, remains the most awkward form of hug for me. That said, I deal better with the awkward buddy hug from a guy than I do the "I'm the Big Dog" power hand shake. I really resent having someone try to crush my fingers in a vise like grip, turning a greeting or introduction into a power trip.

Posted by: Chris White on March 19, 2008 2:19 PM

I'm not a big fan of the social hug. Hugs should be limited to family and the closest friends. Within that select group, though, the more the better.

Posted by: Lynn on March 19, 2008 3:05 PM

I'm a male non-hugger and agree with Jerry Seinfeld that I don't see the point of it unless it I'm hugging a woman and I get to fondle a breast in the deal.

Posted by: Bilwick1 on March 19, 2008 4:17 PM

Since hugging is 9 times out of 10 a form of insincere affection I'd have to agree with JA that huggers tend to be libs.

Posted by: ricpic on March 19, 2008 5:03 PM

A point about the contemporary handshake: men are almost invariably reasonable in my experience, as are women, but the bone crushing grab of four fingers invariably comes from women.

Posted by: Larry on March 19, 2008 5:25 PM

Once I was in a therapy group for ministers and came to some moment when a hug of healing or congratulation was appropriate -- I forget the circumstances exactly -- but the guy gave me a nice hug and I hugged him back, meanwhile patting his back. Everyone burst out laughing! The group leader during the previous week, when I'd been absent, had explained that when you pat backs during hugs, it means "no sex."

Another future minister would abuse religious occasions by throwing his arms around women, reaching around to fondle their breasts. He paid no attention back patting and other signals, though we females got pretty good at throwing up our elbows in the way. One evening at vespers he did this to me, whereupon, exasperated beyond patting, I shouted, "Take your goddamn hands off my boobs!" No one laughed. People thought I was totally out of line. The guy didn't last long in the ministry, but then neither did I.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 19, 2008 6:36 PM

Reading these comments, I really do have to wonder whether there's some truth to that woo-woo idea that kids who don't get enough affection growing up end up to be conservatives/hawks.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on March 19, 2008 9:27 PM

I don't know, JA. I also don't know if I'm included in your class of those who didn't get enough affection--my family were not same-sex or adult-huggers, and I'm a libertarian atheist who still thinks McGovern's 72 slogan "Come Home America" hasn't gotten a fair hearing (or ever will).


Posted by: Narr on March 20, 2008 10:49 AM

Play rugby. The forwards spend much of the game hugging.

Posted by: dearieme on March 20, 2008 12:03 PM

I like the handshake/hug combo when greeting male friends/family members. You shake with your right, then do the 3-pat hug with your left while still shaking with the right. It's manly and affectionate at the same time. Anyway, everyone in my circle does that without hesitation. And of course, you always hug women.

When I visited NYC a few years ago, I quickly found out that you kiss friends of the opposite sex on the lips when greeting. New friends, as well, like after the 2nd or 3rd time you meet them. Kind of nice.

When we were in Spain, one of the things that struck my wife and I was how physically affectionate men were to each other. It wasn't unusual to see two adult men, obviously not gay and just friends, walking down the street arm in arm. And some of the elderly men held hands. Again, I find that very nice.

Two of my great uncles would kiss each other on the lips when greeting. That always fascinated me as a little kid. They were old then. I think when you become elderly, many people just say fuck it, I'm old, I don't have much time left, I'm kissing you. It's a lesson to be learned earlier, I think.

Posted by: fh on March 20, 2008 9:22 PM

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