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The Promiscuous Hug

One of my pet peeves is the increasingly common phenomenon of strangers hugging me upon first greeting.   I’ve had to do more counter measures to thwart those full frontal, bear hug attacks in recent years than in any one time in my earlier life.  I was delighted to stumble upon Judith Martin aka Miss Manners commenting on the issue:

Miss Manners has been valiantly fighting the promiscuous hug for years. She recommends snapping out the hand for a handshake, which has the effect of physically warding off approaches. But that is for acquaintances who try to skip the preliminaries to becoming intimate friends and for strangers who entertain the bizarre notion that physical contact leads to love instead of the other way around.

Oh, yes!  Preach it, sister!  My expressions of physical affection move along a scale of increasingly closer contact that correlates to an increasingly closer, intimate relationship.    Strangers and acquaintances get a warm smile and a sincere, eager handshake which progresses eventually to sideways, affectionate huglets for those good friends and not-so-immediate family.   Big bear hugs are reserved for my husband, immediate family and very dear friends on special occasions.  I NEVER hug a business or professional acquaintance.  I think my lawyer is an awesome guy who deserves my respect and big bucks but hug him?  Perish the thought.  Hugging the salesgirl who helped me find something I needed?  <twitch, twitch>  Not. Going. To. Happen.

Why have we culturally skipped the pleasantries of a genuine smile, a twinkle in the eye,  a pro-actively offered handshake and a congenial greeting as the first step in greeting people we barely know and replaced it with an invasion of intimate personal space generally reserved for more intimate relationships?  The beauty of the handshake is that it is civil, respectable and respectful to everyone equally regardless of social standing and proximity to the greeter.   Hugging, on the other hand, is a more intimate greeting that seems diluted when shared with the entire world.

I enjoy watching “The Locator” but host Troy Dunn’s habit of bear hugging everyone he meets sends me in an apoplexy of wondering what I would do if he came looking for me.  Granted, Dunn is one handsome piece of manliness and the temptation to get engulfed by all that masculinity would exist BUT as much as I am tempted, my desire to let my relationships advance in a natural progression of increasing intimacy and affection outweighs the temporal advantages of close proximity to Dunn’s pectoral muscles.   Therefore I’d have to stiff arm him with a handshake greeting on national television when he comes to tell me he’s found my longlost teddy bear.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Catwhisperer January 26, 2011, 7:44 pm

    I have a relative who has fibromyalgia, which can make hugs quite painful. I know that there are a lot of people who regard hugs as healthy and good and something that people need, but that just isn’t true. There are some physical conditions in addition to fibromyalgia that can make hugging a downright agonizing experience. Also, for some people who are physically frail or who have problems with their balance, a hug can actually throw them off balance and could cause them to fall.

    Respect for personal space is an important component of courteous behavior. It is not respectful to invade the space of people you don’t know very well, even if your intentions are good. Save the hugs for intimates in the truest sense of the word.

  • David January 27, 2011, 1:36 am

    About 5 years ago, a former friend stopped by unannounced while my wife and I were in the middle of doing something. I was carrying a box and went to set it down so I could shake hands. As I was standing back up from setting the box down, my former friend decided to grab me and give me a bear hug.

    Because of the awkward angle and the fact that they knocked me off balance, the hug dislocated my shoulder and popped a rib. I still have pain and restricted movement and hugging makes it worse. What makes it worse is that they knew that I do not like to hug people and chose to do it anyway.

  • Lilya January 27, 2011, 5:17 am

    Handshakes are still very much used in my country – as far as I know.

    Once, when I was a teenager, I was hugged by a stranger, but it was in particualr circumstances.
    I was walking home after my town annual masked parade, thinking I probably looked like a witch since I was wearing black from head to toe. Suddenly, a little girl dressed up as a cute ladybug ran up to me and hugged my leg.
    I can’t really say I minded.

  • Pat in France January 27, 2011, 5:58 am

    Ha, I hate that, too.
    Try living in a country where, as a woman or a child, you have to KISS everyone hello and good-bye! (at least men can shake hands with other men)
    Being originally from Germany, I refused to force my children to kiss strangers, which brought me many bewildered and even mean looks. How many times have I heard, especially from older women: “oh, don’t I get a kiss?”. And I would always tell my child “you don’t have to kiss if you don’t want to – you can shake the lady’s hand, that’s fine too”…

  • DGS January 27, 2011, 9:05 am

    Disclaimer: I am a hugger and a touchy-feely person but with people I a) know very well and care about a lot; b) who like being hugged; c) not with total strangers or in professional settings. And long or short, curly or straight, hair is the property of the person on whose head it happens to grow. I have no problem and in fact, appreciate a polite compliment, but unless someone knows me well and is very close to me, I do not want them touching my hair or braiding it or playing with it (I love when my husband gives me head massages, or when my best friends attempts to braid my hair, but they are very close to me, and with them, it’s quite soothing and relaxing – with random strangers, it’s plain creepy and odd).

  • Lauren January 27, 2011, 9:06 am

    Hi, first time commenter here.

    I have a few stories about hugs. Firstly, I am not a huggy/touchy person and have a wide personal space bubble.
    My first story involves an incident with a casual aquiantance at school (this was a few years ago). We were chatting and it came up in conversation that it was my birthday soon. She glomps me. The glomp is something like a cross between a gentle rugby tackle and a hard hug. I just stood there, stiff as a board, and thought of happy frolicking puppies until she let go. I then said goodbye and had a quiet freak out in the toilet.
    My other stories involve anime conventions. I don’t know about other nerdery conventions but at anime conventions its acceptable to hug/glomp strangers, especially those with ‘Free Hugs’ signs. It’s considered all part of the fun, along with rickrolling, high-fiving, and the occassional LARP (live-action role play) in the convention hall lobby. I did get hugged frequently, and returned them. On the other hand, most of the people at the convention wouldn’t do this in the outside world. It’s part of the atmosphere.
    I did come across someone dressed as a video game character I have a minor crush on. At the urgings of my friends, I went to hug them. However, being very shy about being a hug instigator, I asked very politely. “Mr [character name], sir, would it be possible for me to have a hug please?”

  • Gloria Shiner January 27, 2011, 9:50 am

    I’m a very “huggy” person, probably because I spend so much time working with affectionate teenage girls. However, I am about to go on strike against being hugged by waiters and waitresses in restaurants. Just take my order and bring me my food! I don’t need a hug, too.

  • Aje January 27, 2011, 10:29 am

    I must say as a woman, it’s really creepy. I think most guys are in it for the ‘chest hugs’. There’s at least three older men at my church who love to hug all the women. I used to try to avoid them, but one of them stands outside the church and waits for everyone to leave. Two weeks ago I decided to not let anyone touch me anymore. There’s quite a few folks who think I’m being cold now, but I’ve never been so comfortable ever. 🙂 Yay.

    I should also say, when in Rome, do as the romans. I’m not comfortable with hugs here, but when I am in Spain and the local custom is, not a handshake, but kisses on the cheek, I do so. But that is their handshake, so it is not offensive.

  • Daisy January 27, 2011, 10:35 am

    I’m a hugger, but only family and my two closest friends, and only when the circumstances warrant it (Happy Birthday! Merry Christmas! You got an “A” on your speech!”. ) In my professional life and with other friends, I smile and start extending my hand for a firm, friendly handshake before I’m even in hugging range. Anyone who keeps moving in instead of extending his own is going to run into a firm, friendly poke in the breadbox!

    As for people touching your hair: I have a disorder which caused my hair to come out in patches, drastically thin, and then disapear all together. I’ve worn wigs for many years; they’re very natural looking and people rarely notice. Not once, but THREE times, I’ve had women reach up, tug on my hair, and pull the whole thing half off my head. The last time, I was in a business meeting surrounded by clients. All three times the women said the same thing: “”You had a strand of hair out of place. I was only trying to smooth it down.” Who does this?!!

  • LovleAnjel January 27, 2011, 10:44 am


    I also have the Frieda “naturally curly hair!” and I have had work colleagues, acquaintances and an occaissional stranger pull a Ramona on me. They yank on a curl and watch it bounce back up. One day in high school I got chased through the back room at my job by a coworker, who was actually saying “Boing!” as she did it (being 16 I didn’t know what to do other than run away).

  • Izzlebun January 27, 2011, 11:38 am

    There have been a few times when leaving social events with my husband that a few people (either hosts or other guests) will rise to see us out. (Totally fine and gracious). There have been a few times where on our way out the door someone, most often male, that we have just met will shake my husbands hand, then turn to me whereupon I extend my hand for a shake. I then get swept into a bear hug along with the exclamation, “It was so nice to meet you!” I can only imagine that some men believe that it is the socially acceptable thing to do to shake a man’s hand and hug a woman. Yeesh.

    A few years ago in grad school, we students were separated into small groups to practice job interviews skills. I had to correct someone in my group who thought that in a business setting he was supposed to only shake men’s hands. I guess he thought he was supposed to do the double clasp wraparound hand hold for women–or worse, hug them after a job interview?

  • Wink-n-Smile January 27, 2011, 11:48 am

    Most people don’t even know it’s possible to be injured or pained by a hug.

    Until it happens to them.

    Although, I must say, I never mind a small child hugging me. I find it universally charming. But cute little kids can make all sorts of rudeness seem charming. Also, they’re not likely to actually cause you physical pain.

    When I was three, I used to attack the legs of the men at church, sit on their shoe, wrap my arms and legs around thier leg, and demand a ride. Amazingly, I never got told off for that. The worst that happened was someone eventually told me I was too big and he couldn’t drag me any more.

  • Izzlebun January 27, 2011, 11:51 am

    @Daisy. People can be so boorish! Instead of owning up to the mistake and being apologetic it seems that these women retreated behind self righteous excuses. “I was just trying to help–I didn’t do anything wrong!”

  • psammead January 27, 2011, 12:28 pm

    LovleAnjel, you beat me to it! All those stories from curly-haired people who found that complete strangers couldn’t keep their hands to themselves –> instant memories of what a terrible time Ramona had staying away from her classmate’s “boing-boing” ringlets!

  • irish January 27, 2011, 12:45 pm

    In Italy even two men do the kiss, which I could never picture any of my male friends or relatives in Ireland doing! They don’t even hug usually, regardless of how close they are. The thing with cheek kissing in European countries is it’s actually quite civil. Often there’s no contact at all, just air kisses, and is definitely not such as space-invasion.

  • Geekgirl January 27, 2011, 12:53 pm

    A while back, there was a some kind of random movement to have more hugging in British culture. Some people hung around Trafalgar Square, hugging everyone who passed. The first time they tried it on me, I stood back and said ‘don’t you bleeding dare!’. (I have issues with being touched by people for various good reason).This died out when the free huggers became replaced by mugger huggers, who give you a hug and steal your wallet. Avoid huggers in London. (Besides, it’s not really British!)

    Recently, at work, some people tried to instigate a ‘hug day’ when they hugged random people ‘to make them feel better’. I had to remind them to always ask permission first – especially as they worked with victims of sexual and physical abuse who are likely to react badly to unasked-for hugs.

    I wish people would remember that why they may love stranger hugs, for some others, it may not only be unwelcome but actually bring back painful memories and issues.

  • Courtney January 27, 2011, 1:29 pm

    I gotta say it . . . I’m a hugger. BUT I do let others initiate the hug first unless it’s been established that the person enjoys hugs. And I reserve hugs for social situations only. No business hugs, no hugging random people in stores, etc. I will hug a new stranger I just met, but only if I feel like we’re on the same page, and I will dodge hugs from people I don’t like well enough. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing, everything in moderation.

  • Paige January 27, 2011, 2:48 pm

    I like to hug because I very much DISLIKE shaking hands. From my trips to other countries where kisses on the cheek are the norm, I realize how we Americans distance ourselves and how cold we can be. So be prepared; If we ever meet I GONNA GIVE YA A BIG OL HUG! 😀

  • Leslie Holman-Anderson January 27, 2011, 4:56 pm

    I confess to being a huggy person. But not on first meeting, and certainly not on first meeting with a business contact! And bizarre as it is, that has hurt me.

    Some years ago the corporation I worked for outsourced my department in an odd way: the new company moved into an unused part of our headquarters, transferred all of us onto their payroll, and continued otherwise business-as-usual. Well, except for me. When I met my new boss he gave me a big smile and demanded “Give us a hug!” I responded with a startled “What?” and, unable to escape, gave him a very stiff, brief hug. I mean stiff — arms sticking straight out from under his armpits.

    The next day I was told that he’d decided I wasn’t needed on his team. My employers found me another position in the department of a manager notorious for setting people up to fail and then firing them for failing. Which I did, and then she did. That was my last corporate job. I now freelance.

  • irish January 27, 2011, 6:47 pm

    I have to say (Geekgirl, your comment reminded me!) I really like the people who offer free hugs. They always ask permission, and they don’t stop everyone either. On the other hand, if they hugged without permission, that would be pretty appalling.

  • Katie January 28, 2011, 7:17 am

    I’m big on hugs – love them! But you have to learn to gauge the atmosphere. I never hug at work, except one woman who’s also a hugger. (I talk with her on the phone a lot but rarely actually see her – we have different bases – so whenever we see each other at social events we always hug hello and goodbye.) I hug almost all of my friends hello and goodbye when I see them, regardless of how often that may be. If I’m at a party and I’ve met someone – girl or guy – who I’ve had a good chat with, I hug them if they are clearly okay with it. I NEVER hug anyone who doesn’t give me the hug-me vibe as I obviously don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. A hug that someone doesn’t want loses all of its friendly, affectionate meaning.

    The majority of the hugging is the touch-collarbones/quick back rub/air kiss type. With some friends/family it’s a proper bear hug where you really grab on. Again, all about judging the vibe. I’ve never had anyone get uncomfortable on me – or if they have, they’ve hidden it well.

    One of my very closest friends is not a hugger – if we haven’t seen each other in a while she might initiate a side-hug, but otherwise we don’t touch. I find it really amusing that every year on my birthday – or birthday party, whichever day she sees me first – I always get a completely unprompted hug. I had a birthday last week, and as soon as I walked into the restaurant for dinner she bounded up and gave me a bear-hug! I don’t expect it, but it seems to be okay once a year. I find that very sweet 🙂

  • chelee74 January 28, 2011, 11:46 am

    LOL! Yay Paige!! 🙂

    “So be prepared; If we ever meet I GONNA GIVE YA A BIG OL HUG! 😀 “

  • Mechtilde January 28, 2011, 4:49 pm

    Paige and chlee74- look if you two ever meet, feel free to hug. But please remember that not everyone likes being hugged- especially by people they don’t know, and respect their rights not to be hugged. Just ask first please?

  • Chocobo January 28, 2011, 4:57 pm

    Unlike other etiquette issues, this is not a black-and-white topic for me; It really depends on the situation you are in, if the other person seems receptive, how comfortable you are with them, how comfortable they are with you, if they seem like a creeper, etc. So I disagree with the blanket statement that hugs (or kisses, as the case may be) should always be reserved for intimate relationships. I don’t think we need to be reminded that etiquette is here to help oil the links between us, and make our social interactions as smooth as possible — not as a perfunctory law. So if you feel that it’s appropriate to hug your waitress and she’s cool with it — why not?

    I’m all for more hugging. Personally I don’t think that we need more etiquette to keep us apart from one another and create more social boundaries between people, to delineate who is “in” or “out” in our social circle. But that is a philosophical difference of opinion, I suppose.

    It does disturb me that some commenters feel that it is socially wrong to hug and/or kiss on the cheek in other cultures. Manners are cultural — and you would be very rude not to kiss a friend-of-a-friend you just met on the cheek in, say, France. I would hope that you would respect their sense of manners as much as you would want them to respect yours where you live.

    Additionally, not all parts of the U.S. are the same; it’s really not accurate to suggest that once someone moves here the should “get with the program”. The U.S. is a very culturally diverse place, geographically and ethnically: there are places where the “no hug” rule would be more appropriate (like my relatives in Iowa), but in others not hugging would be considered stand-offish (like my relatives in rural New England).

    By all means, if you aren’t comfortable with hugging, just say so. Or employ the hand out for a handshake to dodge it, if you don’t want to be direct. I just don’t think that this particular etiquette rule can be applied so liberally to everyone, everywhere.

  • Vicki January 29, 2011, 1:30 pm

    I like hugging my friends. Not random strangers. I’ve had times when, after a half hour of conversation with a new acquaintance, we’ve parted with a hug, but that’s not a stranger out of the blue, it’s someone I am introduced to or meet at a social event.

    Beyond that, what’s so hard with asking “Would you like a hug?” rather than grabbing first? Nothing, except that it gives the rest of us the chance to say “no” if we aren’t in the mood, don’t like that person, have a sunburn or fibromyalgia, or have religious objections. (Some of my neighbors will try not to even touch an other-sex adult they aren’t related to.)

    And hugging because she doesn’t know where the person’s hand has been? Does she know where the person’s clothes have been? The person’s hands have almost certainly been washed more recently than their shirt. If you don’t think I’m clean enough to touch my hand, fine, just say hello. Consider that people sometimes cough and sneeze into the elbows of their shirts or coats; do you want that on your own shirt?

  • Jillybean January 31, 2011, 10:12 am

    Vicki – unless that person just sneezed a wet sneeze or coughed up phlegm in the crook of their arm, I don’t see how the cleanliness of their shirt against yours would matter. Your shirt isn’t going to get sick from touching another shirt. As for your assumption that people’s hands are cleaner than their shirts, well I’d argue that too. People don’t run their shirts along dirty railings that they might hold onto while climbing the stairs. People don’t touch every item on their desk with their shirt. They don’t pick up their phone with their shirt, Etc. Germs get on our hands most frequently – unless you are washing/sanitizing your hands every time you touch something, well, your clothes are likely cleaner than your hands for the majority of the day (unless you have an outdoorsy or construction job where your clothes might get particularly dirty). And many people don’t wash their hands nearly as often as you’d assume. I work with a woman (and everyone knows it), whose shirt probably was washed more recently than her hands most days.

  • Maryann February 1, 2011, 2:14 am

    I’m not a hugger in general. I only hug people to whom I am truly close and not even that often, then. Therefore, I send very strong back-off signals, usually Miss Manners’ suggested proffered hand. Sometimes someone gets aggressive about it, in which case, the blunt comes out. “Thank you, but I don’t want a hug.”

    I don’t blame them, I make the preference about me, so as not to cause offense. Sometimes they get the idea. Sometimes they take offense, anyway. But then I really don’t care. I don’t want to be friends, anyway, with someone who will acknowledge neither basic etiquette nor my wishes.

    @8daysaweek – I’ve not yet been pregnant, if ever, but I hear about this and it horrifies me. I’m afraid I might become quite obnoxious if someone thought it appropriate to begin touching my reproductive paraphernalia in public without my permission. Funny how none of them seems to think of it this way, but it’s accurate. My body is private property – no trespassing – and no matter how much it may have swelled, that’s an exceedingly private area.

  • Lady Godiva February 1, 2011, 5:01 pm

    I’m all for asking for permission before grabbing anybody–unasked-for hugging doesn’t always go over well.
    I had a doctor (my PCP) suddenly hug me when we were discussing a possible breast cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, I was sore from a breast biopsy (which she knew), so her unexpected hug was painful, not comforting, and my reaction was a heartfelt “Ouch!” I know her intentions were good, but I’m not a touchy-feely person and being grabbed and hugged, especially in a moment of stress by someone I didn’t know that well, didn’t have the warm & fuzzy effect on me that was probably intended. Instead, it gave me more stress to deal with at an already stressful moment.

    I understand that for some people, being hugged can be wonderful, but those who like to hug need to understand that this isn’t the case for everybody, and should observe some boundaries unless they’re invited. There’s not much worse than having unwanted physical contact inflicted on you and then being criticized for not liking it.
    Please, give me a little space and let me keep my dignity and handle my personal issues in my own way!

  • Jeanne February 3, 2011, 9:03 pm

    One should also think twice about crunching someone’s hand when shaking it! Especially vunerable are small or elderly people. Also annoying are people who have to touch you in some way when greeting you or being introduced, such as placing his arm around you or touching your shoulder. Shaking hands is the only touching that should be done in normal social situations.

  • Ista February 4, 2011, 8:24 pm

    I misread the title, thought it said “The Promiscuous Hag”…I was getting ready for a really cringeworthy story.

  • MidoriBird July 16, 2011, 5:31 pm

    I have something called Asperger’s Syndrome–a mild form of autism….and I can tell you hugging me is more or less a physical assault to my senses. It’s painful and it inspires a near-panicky feeling in me. I’ve learned to suppress a physical reaction when a non-family member hugs me; I don’t want to hurt feelings! It’s a near similar routine for handshakes or any other form of touching; if it isn’t family or someone close I can hardly bear it. My line of work calls for me to interact with people on a daily basis and it has helped for me to handle the situation, even if I don’t like it any more, and I do well now after working with the public for so many years. I do wish I was more comfortable with touching in general.

  • Chris December 4, 2014, 11:26 am

    I love to hug, but never assume a stranger wants to receive one. Personal space is very important for people, and when you hug someone, you’re as far in their personal space as you can get. I love to hug my close friends, family, and so on. But in these cases, I know they’re OK with it.

    Now, if a stranger wanted a hug and I didn’t get a creepy vibe from him/her, I’d give the person a hug, because I think a wanted hug feels wonderful. 🙂

    For anyone else, a friendly handshake is the most I’ll do in terms of touching.