Originally published in the
December 2, 2004
December 2, 2004
To hug or not to hug: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The clings and squeezes of joyous greeters,
Or to hold arms against a sea of babbles
And by opposing end them? To lie, to shriek.
Customs of greeting and congratulations vary across the world from a cursory acknowledgment of the presence of others to an effusive extravaganza of hugging and kissing. And, of course, the customs vary within the U.S. among families and other social groups, and even among individuals in a family or a group.
I reflected about hugging as our family gathered for Thanksgiving and I saw the photo of President Bush kissing Condoleezza Rice on the cheek to congratulate her on her nomination as Secretary of State. I thought it was a bit condescending but I will say no more; I’m not Karl Rove.
Hand-shaking on first meeting others has been a custom in Europe and America for a long time. Some insist on a firm handshake with a direct look in the eye, others give a limp hand and look elsewhere. In the recent BBC “David Copperfield”, Uriah Heep not only gave a limp handshake and looked “humble”, but people wiped their hands after shaking his.
Once Americans are familiar with one another, they generally don’t shake hands daily with the same people. On the other hand, the French shake hands on first meeting colleagues each day. I remember being at a French company in one group approaching another group in the hallway. People started shaking hands with the members of the other group. One man who had already seen me that day started to shake my hand but quickly withdrew it, saying “Déja vu (already seen).”
If Americans see an acquaintance outside of work, many shake hands on meeting. For example, people who work together and don’t shake hands each day may do so when they meet at church.
Other than business situations, hand shaking by women has changed almost exclusively to hugs, hugs even for introductions to women or men. About the time I was married, hugging seemed to done only among relatives – women hugged women, women hugged men, and men shook hands with men.
I know I shook hands with my dad and stepfather, my grandfather, my brother, and my father-in-law; and I hugged my wife, mother, mother-in-law, and sisters-in-law. Of course, I hugged my wife, and after forty-four years each hug seems more precious.
On the other hand, I dreaded seeing my mother because of her extremely emotional hugs. We moved to Europe when I was thirty and stayed six years; I came back to the U.S. only once in that time. Whenever I visited my mother after our return she would run out of the house wailing and hug me as if I been lost and gone forever. I finally had to ask her to calm down, and she did so reluctantly, making snide comments each time we met again.
I started seeing more hugs when women’s sports became more popular. The enthusiasm of the sports victory seemed to carry over to other victories or moments of pride. Women giving certificates or awards to other women didn’t shake hands anymore, they gave hugs. Then hugging became the standard greeting between women, sometimes even of the remotest acquaintance.
Now some women hug on the slightest pretext – do something moderately well and you are hugged, make a big or small mistake and you are hugged, have an unhappy event in your life and you are hugged, have a happy event in your life and you are hugged. Generally these women hug other women on these occasions but rarely other men. I may think this because I seem to be mostly in groups that are predominantly women. Hm! Women in their sixties and older don’t seem to hug as much as women in their fifties or younger.
At some time or other, many women all but stopped shaking hands with men, they hugged them. Two or more couples get together, the men shake hands with one another and the women hug everyone. Now this is where the fun begins. Just how do you hug someone of the opposite sex?
Some people bend at the waist, put one arm over the shoulder of the other, and briefly touch cheeks. It seems more like a formality than any friendly interest in the other person. Other people stand tall, put both arms around the other and squeeze chest to chest. I often wonder if some women are oblivious to what they are doing or if they are sending a message that I’m not getting.
No, I’m not a grouch about people’s enthusiasm for others. I’m not going to be cold to others who want to hug me as a greeting; I will continue to be reluctant to initiate it. On the other hand, I will initiate hugs in certain circumstances. When someone has done a good job and I am standing close, I will stand beside him or her and give a one-hand hug to his or her far shoulder. If someone has a setback or is exhausted from some task, I will put his or her head on my shoulder and put both arms around his or her back. I will give back rubs whenever needed and when my hands can still knead.
Excuse me, my wife just came home and I want to give her a good hug.
©2004, 2007 Melvyn D. Magree