Please Don’t Hug Me!

Juliet Lapidos explains why she’s embrace-averse

• FROM Slate

The word hug is of uncertain origin. The Oxford English Dictionary cautions against confusing it with hugge —a variant of the Middle English ug, meaning “to inspire with dread, loathing, or disgust.” Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to the possibility that hug does, in fact, have some kinship with ug. It seems apt to me. At the prospect of a tight embrace, dread and loathing, if not disgust, do come to mind. So does the sound ug.

Granted, with the right person—blood relations, my boyfriend, close friends—I enjoy a well-placed hug. By well-placed, I mean before or after a lengthy separation, as a form of congratulation (“You’re getting married!”), as a means of consolation (“You’re getting divorced?”), or to ward off hypothermia. That’s about it.

So why is it that when I go over to your house for dinner, you wrap your arms around me, even though I saw you last Friday at the movies? And why do you come at me again after the meal is over, even though we hugged not three hours ago and I’ll probably see you next week? It’s not that I don’t like you—I do—but it’s such an awkward interaction. One arm or two? Should there be space between us? How much? Should I brush my cheek against yours? Maybe even kiss your cheek? And for how long, exactly, should we be touching?

I’m willing to believe that some people really love to hug. They rush to enfold not only family and friends but also friends of friends and near strangers. Yet most people are just going through the motions; they’re looking for a way to say hello or goodbye, and so they open their arms wide. Not wanting to seem rude, I submit to this ritual of friendship. That, or I make sure I’m carrying something bulky.

After one particularly confounding interaction (Me, in a goofy voice: “How about a handshake?” Acquaintance: “Awww, just come here!”), I looked for expert counsel. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, offered her sympathy: “I’ve become a non-hugger who hugs. Recently after breakfast with a new friend, I went in to hug her goodbye, and I could see a kind of horror in her eyes, but it was too late to back off and say, ‘I’m really not a hugger either.’” That’s me: the girl with the look of horror in her eyes.

The Emily Post Institute, which specializes in manners, explains that when greeting someone, you should look him or her in the eyes and smile, speak clearly, say the person’s name, add a “glad to see you” or “how’s it going?” and then shake hands with a firm grip, pump two or three times, and then release. The institute suggests adding a hug “if it’s a relative or close friend.” No mention of friends of friends or friends’ dates. Nor any specific information on what a proper hug entails. When I pointed this out to the extremely well-mannered Daniel Post Senning (great-great-grandson of Emily Post and the institute’s manager of online content), he mused that unlike the handshake, there is no standard hug format. He did suggest some basic guidelines: Don’t squeeze too hard, don’t sneak a kiss, and don’t linger. Crucially, for my purposes, he also noted that greetings should be preceded by a moment when you ask yourself, “Is this appropriate?” If I’m the intended recipient of your hug, the answer is probably no.

There are several hug alternatives, among them: the handshake, the cheek kiss, the wave, the arm squeeze, and the nod. Handshakes seem formal, cheek kisses un-American, waves rather odd. Arm squeezing would be a good solution if it weren’t for the danger of getting pulled into something more full-bodied. The nod, though, can be very effective when combined with a smile, especially when executed with confidence and with one hand already grasping the door handle.

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