The Tyranny Of Hugs

When I was little I used to have a pair of stuffed monkeys whose arms velcroed around each other. Back then, I thought it meant they loved each other. But maybe they'd just spent an evening together at someone's house and discovered they both kind of liked prog-rock. And were, you know, being polite. When did hugging become compulsory?

By way of research, I put the question to the least touchy-feely person I know, my mom. This is a woman who stonily refuses to extend her hand during the "Peace" in church and is known to frequently bellow "I have a cold!" if anyone shows signs of advancing on her with a hug in mind.

"The 60s," she replied immediately. "That's when it all happened." Clearly, she viewed this as a larger social degeneration.

Wikipedia, meanwhile, was vague on the dates, but confirmed that the hug has emerged as a standard feminine greeting. Quoth the anonymous sage,

A hug, usually accompanied with a kiss on the cheek, is also becoming a custom among Western women to convey a joyous greeting and sorrowful parting. Also, in recent years it has become a practice amongst some teenage girls to greet and farewell each other with a hug.

And in case the phenomenon's status was in doubt, the New York Times confirmed it in 2009, writing, "A measure of how rapidly the ritual is spreading is that some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in."

Not just teens, Times. Indeed, work is now the only place where someone who values personal space is guaranteed safety from the stigma of up-tightness. Over-hugging will, at worst, make most people look friendly and affectionate (work being an exception); the reverse can lead to an impression of stand-offishness. Take the recent (underrated) No Strings Attached: in the first scene, we're told Natalie Portman's character is uptight and afraid of intimacy by the fact that she doesn't hug easily.

And some people, well, hate it. Writing in Slate today, Juliet Lapidos deplores the tyranny of the hug and what she views as tawdry imitation sentiment.

Like form letters that mimic the conventions of personal notes, obligatory hugs mock true intimacy...A real hug-the hug of consolation, let's say-soothes its target; it says you can count on me, because we're close. See how close we are? We're actually touching! The doorway hug impersonates that message, and corrupts it through casual repetition.

Some people are natural huggers from warm, tactile families. Others are so visibly uncomfortable that it's a minor ordeal for all concerned. I don't mind hugging, personally, but I prefer to dart in and kiss on the cheek before someone has the chance to enfold me in an embrace that smacks of obligation. This requires sureness of purpose, however, and should not be undertaken lightly. Another tack is to grasp someone's hands warmly and then go in for the kiss while they're effectively imprisoned. This also works for a handshake, if you want to up the friendliness factor. Lapidos goes on to prove — at least academically — that the hug's not a social requirement, at least not so far as etiquette experts are concerned. But try telling that to most Americans under the age of 40. Showing, not telling, is what it's all about.


For Teenagers, Hello Means 'How About A Hug
[NY Times]
I Don't Need A Hug [Slate]