For fans of personal space, these are difficult times: America has become a nation of huggers
By Peggy Drexler, Wall Street Journal
I’m not a hugger. When I see a registered personal-space invader coming my way at a party, the music from “Jaws” plays in my head. And there are lots of people like me—reasonably comfortable in social situations, no particular phobias, just a bit reserved in expressions of physical intimacy.
For us fans of personal space, these are difficult times. America has become a hugging culture. What’s an Academy Award without a gauntlet of hugs from seat to stage? Any sports win will ignite an orgy of whooping, full-body man hugs. Political empathy in tragedy is measured in hugs.
We remain a “medium touch” culture—more physically demonstrative than Japan, where a bow is the all-purpose hello and goodbye, but less demonstrative than Latin or Eastern European cultures, where hugs are robust and can include a kiss on both cheeks. But we do seem to be hugging more.
For men, this is newly slippery terrain. Handshakes are scripted and reliable—a firm grip, a couple of brisk pumps, and done. There is evidence of hand-shaking as far back as the fifth century B.C. It may have started as a gesture of peace by proving that the hand held no weapon.
With hugging now in play, men must do rapid social calculations: body language, length and nature of the relationship, setting, alcohol effect and the other’s intentions. Decisions must be made in split seconds.
Male friends tell me that they adhere to the one-second rule (one-Mississippi and…break). They also favor the A-frame hug—shoulders touching, handshake high, a couple of quick taps on the back. There is no such middle ground for women. It’s either shake or hug.
Bill Clinton has perfected the hug that is not a hug: a handshake complemented by also holding the other’s upper arm. Advantage—more intense than a handshake but short of an embrace, and it can be maintained indefinitely. It can also easily progress to a full hug as the conversation dictates.
When we expand our exploration to the man-woman hug, things get dicey. Especially at work.
Science says that hugs are healthy: They release endorphins, strengthen the immune system, boost self-esteem and promote bonding. But they can also put a warning in your personnel file.
There are many valid reasons to hug in an office setting—anything from a big team win to goodbyes after downsizing. But one senior executive I know shared some universal career advice: “Don’t yell, don’t cry, don’t hug.” His advice is backed by surveys that say that most people don’t want intimacy with other workers.
As the question of whether or not to hug becomes more situational, the potential rises for awkward encounters. The biggest risk: going in for a hug only to realize too late that the other person had not planned the same. Expert consensus says that if you’re going for the hug and it’s too late to turn back, don’t stop. Press on, but make it quick.
For nonhuggers, there are some defensive maneuvers. Deflect: Keep something (a desk, a table, a co-worker) between you and the serial hugger until the moment passes. Deny: “Sorry, I’m not much of a hugger.” Resist: Take physical control with a stiff handshake and firm elbow that keeps personal space intact. Escape: Find something that requires your immediate attention. If nothing comes to mind, drop your cell phone. Lie: “I really don’t want you to catch this cold I have.” Or when diversion isn’t feasible and escape is impossible, accept the hug with an icy response and hope that the hugger remembers.
Workplace hugging is particularly problematic when your workplace happens to be a school. Teachers have been told never to hug any child for any reason—even though a hug is precisely what a child might need.
Many schools have also added a written policy against hugging between students, with suspensions finding their way into national news. Students and some parents are irate at bans on a simple act of affection. But feel for the school administrator, responsible for determining when a simple act of affection becomes a more complex situation.
There is always the question: Are we overthinking this? Maybe we’ve complicated a simple act to the point that risk has overtaken reward, and it’s just not worth the effort. Some would say it’s a lamentable loss of human connection. As someone who believes that we call it personal space for a reason, I’m OK with that.
—Dr. Drexler is an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and the author, most recently, of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family.”