Three people hugged me within moments of entering The Cuddle Sanctuary, a nonsexual “guided social experience” in Los Angeles I visited last month. It wasn’t surprising, though. Hugging — as well as platonic touch of any kind — is the whole point of the Cuddle Sanctuary.
But it’s hardly the only hug-friendly zone in town.
Of course, life is neither a cuddle sanctuary nor a mayoral receiving line.
Adult hugs are clumsy and weird, and for me typically involve: A) prematurely leaning in for an unrequited embrace; or B) inadvertently — or vertently — rejecting someone else’s.
But what is the etiquette on hugging?
And do these same courtesies apply to hugging in-laws? Friends? Co-workers? The significant others of friends and co-workers?
For answers, I turned to Terry Petracca, MEL’s resident HR expert; Daniel Post Senning, the scion of America’s first family of manners; and fellow MEL staff writer John McDermott, whom I’ve apparently been over-hugging for more than a year (much to his chagrin).
What’s the general etiquette on hugging in the workplace?
Post Senning: We live in an age of increasing informality; as part of that, there’s now a range of choices on how to handle and manage greetings and introductions. The most important thing is you have to have some idea of context.
McDermott: Work seems an inappropriate venue for that kind of touch.
Petracca: Please don’t hug someone you’ve just met. If you don’t really know them — or if there’s any possibility that it can be misconstrued — don’t do it. When in doubt, shake it out! The most offensive and egregious people — and I see this more than I would like to — are the ones who say, “I’m a hugger!” right before they lean in without giving you the chance to step back and guard your space. You’ve got to be astute and read body language.
What does the body language of someone who doesn’t want to be hugged look like?
McDermott: Exasperated as you breeze by my hand and pin me against your chest.
Petracca: Typically, the person takes a step back, turns away or immediately sticks out their hand, preserving their space.
Is geography relevant? That is, is hugging more acceptable depending on where you are?
McDermott: Hugging strangers is most certainly not a Midwest thing, which is where I’m from.
Post Senning: Yes. I remember noticing an East Coast/West Coast cultural difference when I was 18. I went from high school in Vermont to Pomona College in California, and all of a sudden, my friends were all hugging each other! I was like, Is this a West Coast thing? Then again, most cultural things — like chicken on pizza — originate on the West Coast and migrate after five years.
Petracca: From a business perspective, there’s a much more laissez-faire attitude about touching and hugging in the rest of the world. In a lot of countries, it’s not unheard-of once you have a relationship for people to hug and men to pat each other on the back.
But in the U.S., it’s best to keep it formal in the office?
Post Senning: Yes. A handshake is the safest, most permissible option in most situations. Or the two-handed handshake, which I call the “politician’s handshake” because a lot of politicians employ that extra level of informality. Some view it as a gesture of dominance, however, so you do want to be careful about how these things are perceived.
Petracca: I think so. Unless you have a real relationship with somebody — something more than a running dialogue on Slack or Skype. Even real relationships, though, can still be tricky scenarios, since one party may view it as an intimate relationship while the other party definitely doesn’t.
McDermott: Yes. Why would you be so presumptuous as to think your colleague wants to be hugged? There’s nothing a handshake can’t accomplish in the office. It’s polite and respectful and not vaguely intimate the way a hug is.
Should hugging etiquette be gender-neutral, applied equally to both sexes?
Post Senning: It depends. A good standard in business is that your etiquette is gender-neutral. You’re more likely to be hugging someone of the opposite gender, though, so be mindful.
Petracca: As you know from visiting the Cuddle Sanctuary, huggers tend to be gender-neutral. That is, people who like to hug don’t care about gender. (Unless they’re gropers, which is another issue altogether.)
Is it okay to be uncomfortable about being expected to hug at work?
Post Senning: Of course. I hear from a lot of professionals who are definitely uncomfortable about being expected to participate in hugs. They think it’s too informal; it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t know how to handle it.
McDermott: It’s wildly ironic — to the point of hypocrisy — that we’re simultaneously more sensitive to sexual harassment in the workplace, yet encouraging workers to embrace one another such that their genitals may rub against each other’s. It’s awkward and strange.
Petracca: Better to make a nonverbal rebuke. If somebody’s coming in for a hug, take a step back. If someone asks you for a hug, say, “Sorry, but I like my personal space” and immediately stick out your hand for a handshake. There are people who are haphephobic who don’t like to be touched, and that needs to be respected.
What about hugging co-workers’ significant others?
Petracca: They often fall under the category of people you’ve not met, so you shouldn’t do it. I’ve seen a lot of situations where someone will say, “I feel as though I know you, let me give you a hug.” Invariably, you’ll catch the person being hugged cringing.
Post Senning: As far as touching at work, I used to draw the line at hugging. But since work culture is becoming more casual, I now draw that line at hugging spouses of co-workers. That’s a very delicate area.
McDermott: Again, why chance an uncomfortable encounter? Just shake their hand.
What about kissing?
Petracca: It depends on where you are. European men often give their coworkers a kiss. Or two. Or three. Generally, though, do not kiss
Post Senning: Be extra careful when adding a kiss. It’s not common in American courtesy. That said, it’s nice when it’s an affectionate gesture of familiarity among people who are close. So it’s not that I’m saying, “Don’t do it,” but pay attention to relationships and how spouses might feel. At the same time, physical contact is important, and a lot is communicated by how we come into contact with each other.
McDermott: I’m positive that when it comes to business, I can communicate everything I want without our lips touching even once, let alone two or three times.