I have a confession to make. I am not a hugger. I do not like to be hugged by people who are not close friends or immediate family. Nothing makes me cringe more than when I’m hanging out with a group of friends and acquaintances, and the end of night everyone does that “saying goodbye” dance where each individual has to hug every other individual, even if they do not know each other. Thanks, I hate it! Keep your body away from my body! Do not touch me, as I do not like it!
At some point, hugs became normalized as the polite way to greet one another, and to bid adieu. I’m not sure if that’s a New York City thing, or a millennial thing, or United States thing—social norms vary from state to state, culture to culture. Greetings and farewells are typically more intimate in Europe, where kissing people’s faces is a normal thing (what the hell, Europe?). I learned this lesson the hard way when an ex’s mom kissed me on both cheeks three times whenever I arrived at their apartment. Just, why? What? I do not like this!
There are also people who do not impose hugs on other people; those people are my heroes. Maybe they smell my anti-touch social anxiety and decide to keep their limbs away from me, or maybe they were raised to keep their hands to themselves with strangers. My favorite people are handshake people, who make me feel respected and very fancy. As a little lady who frequently passes as a teenager with early onset graying hair, I love handshakes. I am an adult, goddamn it. Shake my hand.
I usually keep my anti-hug stance to myself, as I sound like a cranky young feminist weaponizing human kindness to be divisive. People frequently give me “dude, get over it” eye rolls when I speak up about how hugs (especially from men I do not know very well) make me cringe. But to put on my women’s studies hat for a second, it’s worth reiterating that we normalize the erosion of consent and boundaries when we push little kids to give adults hugs and kisses. That’s not me saying that, that’s the literal Girl Scouts saying that.
Any time we pressure someone to make a choice with their body that they do not want to make, that sucks. No, I’m not conflating hugging your aunt with experiencing sexual assault. One is an awkward and uncomfortable experience that the vast majority of us have; the other is a visceral, traumatic trespass on someone’s body and humanity. But the acceptance of one leads to the normalization of the other. It says: Your body is not your body. Your comfort level is less important than politeness. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be rude. It’s not a big deal.
(Note: I am not a parent. Don’t @ me if this is bad parenting advice.)
Hugging takes on higher stakes when it comes to work. Not every office is a hugging office, but with the rise of “we’re all family here” informal company cultures, hugs are sneaking into professional contexts. When you work alongside people for years and do emotional labor together, the line between friends and colleagues blurs. Company cultures of closeness can be a gift, a sign that people feel valued and safe being their full, human selves. But informal work cultures run into traps of inappropriate intimacy and the collapse of traditional norms and boundaries. When leaders encourage an anti-corporate mindset, what touching behaviors do we allow, and which should we avoid?
I’d like to suggest a blanket rule for workplace norms. If you do not hang out with a colleague outside of the office as friends, skip the hug. This applies even more strongly if the chosen target of your hug is someone beneath you in the company hierarchy. And if you’re an older man and you’re going in for a hug with a young woman, stop what you are doing! Think about it this way: in a professional setting, it’s difficult to graciously dodge or refuse a hug because it can come across as rude, awkward or chilly. That’s even harder when you’re negotiating an underlying power dynamic as well. Dudes, shake her hand instead.
It’s also worth puzzling over how often men hug their male colleagues versus their female colleagues. I have no hard evidence to back this up, so I’d love to hear from men in the comments: are you hugging each other as much as you’re hugging us?
To the skeptics who think I’m merely being a killjoy, I receive text messages from friends and female colleagues all the time about receiving hugs that weren’t predatory, but also weren’t invited or desired. A simple unwelcome hug isn’t an assault—no one is accusing you of sexual harassment—but they can be inappropriately intimate and over-familiar. When the hug isn’t so simple, when it escalates to weird touching and, god forbid, the head kisses favored by Joe Biden, you’re being disrespectful. It communicates that someone isn’t a professional with his or her own boundaries and preferences. It communicates disrespect even if that is not your intention.
It’s really important to separate intention from impact here. What you intend to be a friendly act can be a violation for someone else. That doesn’t make you a Bad Person, but it does mean you should think about how your actions make other people feel. Someone else’s discomfort should matter to us more than the discomfort we feel when we’re accused of doing something inappropriate.
When someone I don’t want to hug walks toward me with their arms outstretched, I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin.
A hug is an embrace, a squeeze, a gesture of comfort and caring. It has its place. There’s the guy who I only get to see once or twice a year because he works remotely, and I look forward to his hugs whenever our business trips overlap. That’s because he’s more of a friend than a colleague: we have never once worked together on a project, but we mourned the death of our good friend together and frequently discuss deep, personal wounds. Our hugs are a kind exchange of trust and affection. They’re appropriate for us.
I am not the hug police, and this is not me telling you that you are not allowed to hug anyone ever again. Many people disagree with me on this, and I respect their love of hugs. But it’s worth thinking about how norms are created and enforced around politeness and touching. The onus should not be on the individual employee to say, “Whoa, I’m not a hugger!” and managers need to consciously think about the behaviors they model in the workplace. Don’t tease your colleagues for asserting their personal preferences and physical boundaries either. It takes a lot of courage to speak up when something “innocent” makes us uncomfortable.
Are you a hugger? That’s great! I’m really happy for you. Hugging can bring us joy, solace and connection. But if I can ask you one favor, all you beautiful huggers out there, it’s to chill out a bit and ask first. Whenever someone asks me, “Can I hug you?” I light up inside, because it says they actually care about my comfort-level. I’m more inclined to hug someone if they give me an out.
In conclusion, don’t touch me. Thank you in advance!
Hugging Your Colleagues, Ask A Manager
An Awkward Kiss Changed How I Saw Joe Biden, Lucy Floreso