Not once have I ever known exactly what to do with my hands when greeting another man. Do we slap and snap? Grip and flip? What about a DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince-style post-smack backdraft, as though our colliding hands create a tiny nonlethal explosion? In any case, I thought the possibilities had narrowed recently, because we’d all decided on hugging each other instead.
We most certainly had not, it turns out.
I emerged from a white, straight, suburban childhood in Orlando, Florida, thinking there was a clear gender breakdown for greeting one’s friends: You do a weird hand-thing with men, and you hug women. Boom, done, roll credits. It was a concept that crystallized for me around freshman year of college when a guy I admired at the time said something like “Ladies get hugs” to a female friend of mine he’d met only that evening, just before giving her a goodbye hug. (Incidentally, this guy is now the kind of person who posts drink specials from the bar he works at as Facebook statuses every day.) Lots of people seemed to have gotten a similar memo, too. For decades, we were all out here using separate systems for saying hello with our appendages, as determined by chromosome.
But in the harsh light of 2018, this philosophy now seems insane. Things are changing for men and women in every conceivable arena, from who’s allowed to go out in a hail of gunfire for America and who gets to direct shitty superhero movies, to loosey-goosey bathroom signage. Considering that life is basically an endless series of meeting up with people, punctuated by necessary hermit breaks — or vice versa, your mileage may vary — how we greet each other seems ripe for scrutinizing, too. The way to level the playing field, though, isn’t for men to start doing a weird hand-thing when greeting women, but to start hugging each other more.
As I started to think deeper about hugs recently, meaning beyond merely looking for awkward ones during the SNL goodbyes, I began to monitor greetings. (You know, typical normal person behavior.) Very quickly, I became surprised by what I noticed about my male friends — and about myself.
When it comes to women, or femme-leaning non-binary friends, the question is simply to hug or not hug. Since the question for men is whether to hug, not hug or tangle our fingies together as though making a shadow puppet, the chances of selecting the wrong choice rises dramatically with them. I seem to do it all the time. Recently, I went in for a hug and a guy friend said, “Oh, we’re doing this? Alright.” A slight reservation, followed by surrender. The very next day, I reached out to do a weird hand-thing with another friend, and he said, “Nope!” and pulled me into his brawny arms. In both situations, I’d miscalculated, and therein lies the rub: Hug calculations.
Without consciously realizing it, I’d been performing instant social calculus to determine whether to hug or hand-jive with all my male friends. My dumb brain was taking in all sorts of raw data points — including occupation, sexual orientation and height differential — crunching the numbers, and making snap judgments about my friends’ very souls. This is a hug man. This is a hand man. This is all kinds of gross.
Are all men doing similar mental math to decide whether or not to give each other hugs? Since I will never know what it’s like to be a prisoner inside anyone else’s head but my own, I had to ask around. (Sidenote: if you ever want to engineer a string of slightly uncomfortable moments, simply email your friends a bunch of questions about hugs as greetings, and then go to brunch with them.)
Among the men I asked, some were eager huggers, some only begrudgingly so and others felt compelled to explain the subtle distinction between hugging and giving dap with a back-thwap. (I refuse to acknowledge this distinction.) Rather than computing stats in a hug-matrix, as I’d apparently been doing, my friends mostly claim they decide whether to hug based on how long they’ve known the other person and how long since they last saw each other.
Several were quite specific about four hangouts being the male friendship hug-threshold, for some difficult-to-articulate reason. Anything before that point would be an early hug — a suspicious level of hurried familiarity, and possible indicator of a Talented Mr. Ripley situation. Exceptions to this rule include the end of a long night, which is when it’s the Wild West as far as hugs go, no matter if you just met the guy earlier that night.
While most of the dudes I talked to had no steadfast policies about hugging, the ones who seemed to have the least hangups about it tended to be gay. “I’ll hug anyone regardless of how long we’ve known each other,” one LGBTQ friend tells me. “With gay men especially, a hug as an initial hello seems completely normal.” I’d sort of concluded as much before starting to do actual hug research. (Although I was worried that this assumption itself might be low-key homophobic.)
There’s no way around it: Part of the reason hugs haven’t become the automatic greeting for men is because a lot of men are casually homophobic. Some try to avoid physical contact with other men at all costs, either because they don’t want to be seen as gay by some imagined observer; because they don’t like the way it feels; or because they’re worried they’ll like the way it feels too much. But even casually homophobic men still hug their male friends, from what I can infer; it’s just maybe not their top choice. The kind of guy who, on principle, intercepts every male friend’s outstretched hugging arms with a sturdy, corrective handshake — unless reenacting the “Hug it out, bitch” line from Entourage, of course — is at a level of homophobia beyond the scope of this discussion.
What I found most interesting is that almost every straight man I talked with agreed that the main determinant of a bro-hug is whether the other guy makes the first move. Judging from this small sample of about 20 guys, and admittedly not taking into account geography or other factors, most men in the hug dance simply let the other guy lead. But what if both men are waiting to see what the other does? What then? Probably just a weird hand-thing happens, but not until after a second or two of looking like confused gunfighters who maybe showed up to the wrong duel.
If we’re just mostly waiting to see whether our guy friends expect a hug, the same thing we tend to do with women, what are we even doing? I say fuck it: Let’s do away with the hand-business of our current chaotic system and make bro-hugs industry standard. For acquaintances, we can continue with handshakes — which look and feel like a parody of a business transaction, one that might involve doffing one’s cap and saying, “Hello to you, my good sir!” — but for friends, it’s strictly hugs. It would take a long time to get everyone on board, but if enough men make hugs their default dude-greeting, eventually they will. Imagine: Never again doing the wrong thing with your hands, while simultaneously taking a step toward gender equality.
Yes, we can.
That’s the final thing about bro-hugs: They’re quietly political. Barack Obama was big on hugs, even if he was sometimes terrible at executing them. Perhaps it was his way of crossing international greeting boundaries; perhaps it was a quiet rebuke to casual homophobia. We may never know — the former president was unavailable to respond to my email about hugs, if you can even believe that.
Either way, Obama’s predilection for bro-hugs sent a progressive cultural message about male intimacy. (He was for it — especially with regards to Joe Biden.) In his short tenure as president, Donald Trump has worked hard to undo as much of Obama’s legacy as possible, but he can’t undo that part. Bro-hugs are here to stay, even if they don’t become the primary form of greeting right away. The only positive thing Trump has done since taking office is explode every myth of traditional manliness by being a total bridezilla all the time, even as the MAGA faithful champion his supposed “alpha” status every needy step of the way. The utter emptiness of his performative masculinity is most evident in those infamous who-can-squeeze-harder dick-wagging handshakes that he always inflicts on visiting dignitaries.
If that’s the masculine ideal we’re trying to preserve in oak when we do a weird hand-thing as greeting, let’s not.