Fence Sitter

Proper etiquette governs most corporate practices. As an example in the case of gift-giving — is it okay to give something with a five-year depreciation period and a key to a government functionary? Other questions include proper elevator behavior in a building with call center tenants — should you be shaking your head and noisily sucking in your breath when very young call center agents affect a Kansas accent loudly talking about their day in the office? (He hasn’t even heard of Shakespeare, Bes.)

We now cover a touchy subject: in this age of “me too” and suspicious father figures, is it OK to hug another person?

Usually the request, “can you give me a hug” is not asked directly as it requires a formal response which may indicate either a heretofore unexpressed sense of loathing (ewww…) or an unwarranted affection, except perhaps in the spontaneous team-building war-cry — group hug! But even here, there are those unwilling to join the bonding ritual that caps a motivational seminar.

“Hug” comes from the Norse word hugga, which means to soothe. (I am not making this up.) The social hug refers to a public (as opposed to a private) embrace — wrapping both arms around a living person to bring two bodies, either completely or some parts of them, pressed together, tightly or loosely, without the benefit of accompanying music, or having to discard any items of clothing. Modification of any parts of this definition drastically changes the context of a warm embrace. The complete wardrobe part, for example includes shoes and scarves, just for those who are wondering about the scope of garments.

Hugging as a form of greeting even between same-sex relative strangers is commonplace in, say Arab cultures and some Sicilian organizations, where whispering accompanies the gesture — your time is up. Opposite-sex embracing in public, however, is frowned upon if not considered a crime meriting stoning to death in some of these hugging cultures.

Hugging between spouses does not elicit much negative comment, since it happens rarely, except for newlyweds or the newly re-wedded. Close friends and acquaintances who have met at least two other times in the same week engage in “air kissing,” or touching of cheeks. This social greeting is limited to the region above the neck, allowing faces to connect briefly and tangentially. The head region does not include ear lobes, which need to be left alone and not nibbled.

Air kissing (or beso-beso) can include a brief body contact, but only above the waist. Social hugging does not allow too tight an embrace or the vertical swift movement of a hand at the other’s back, as if checking spine alignment, or any hint of rhythmic hip movement. These liberties alter the nature of a greeting and threatens (or promises, depending on mutual feelings) progression into situations that go beyond hugging. This may cross the line into litigation.

Certain events provide natural occasions for hugging. One is a ballgame where fans on one side in their ecstasy at a successful rally heading for an eventual victory over an arch rival are allowed some connecting moments. This is often limited to a slapping of palms in a noisy high-five, or a fist-bump followed by the simultaneous open palms. A full-nelson hug, especially with a pretty albeit emotionally engaged woman three rows behind (and wearing green) can invite suspicion if not outright physical assault by her seat mate. (Why is she seated in the wrong side?)

Announcements on one’s employment status, like its discontinuation, allow some Nordic soothing from the opposite gender. Acceptance of such displays of commiseration cannot discriminate. They do not allow screening of those offering sympathies. Too often, prolonged embraces, accompanied by stroking and patting, are offered with gusto by large menopausal women with short legs. These maternal figures are predictably on hand for tea and sympathy. They are usually addressed as “mother.”

As a social gesture, hugging exhibits a warmer intimacy than just saying hello. Still an unwelcome hug is certain to be considered a form of sexual assault which can provoke a sharp knee to the flashlight and its batteries that will result in an embarrassing bending over accompanied by an expletive or two.

Embracing another person in joy or grief expresses empathy with another. Hugging cannot be a solitary occupation, after all. It is a way of saying, “I feel your joy.” But, always consent is required. Otherwise, it’s safer to shake hands or simply raise one eyebrow in greeting.


A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.