As if tree hugging wwere not bad enough, America has apparently become a nation of people huggers.
I will stipulate that the older crowd— I count myself among them— preferred the old days when people greeted each other by shaking hands. Psychologist Peggy Drexler explained in the Wall Street Journal that she is not a hugger either.
She explains herself:
I'm not a hugger. When I see a registered personal-space invader coming my way at a party, the music from "Jaws" plays in my head. And there are lots of people like me—reasonably comfortable in social situations, no particular phobias, just a bit reserved in expressions of physical intimacy.
For us fans of personal space, these are difficult times. America has become a hugging culture. What's an Academy Award without a gauntlet of hugs from seat to stage? Any sports win will ignite an orgy of whooping, full-body man hugs. Political empathy in tragedy is measured in hugs.
Drexler is correct. Huggers invade your privacy. They are breaking down the distance between humans. They believe that their new custom allows people to express affection open and honestly and non-verbally.
Say what you want about shaking hands, it does not express affection.
To me over-hugging feels like a desperate effort to connect.
Normally, people connect by sharing information, exchanging pleasantries or making deals. Trying to short-circuit these with an intrusive and often unwanted hug does not feel quite right.
Young people are especially prone to hugging. It makes sense that the people who replaced dating with hooking up might be slightly numbed to the risks of invading personal space and getting too close, too personal, too often.
Drexler places the American custom of hugging between the Japanese practice of bowing to express respect and the Latin habit of accompanying a hug with kisses, on one or both cheeks.
One reason the Japanese neither hug nor shake hands is hygiene. Japan is a small country with a lot of people. Something like 125,000,000 people inhabit a space as big as California. The Japanese know, or must have known that handshakes and hugging communicate germs. Out of respect for each other they refuse to communicate their viruses via handshakes.
In Latin cultures where hugs are robust and people kiss on both cheeks, the kissy-kissy ritual is normally reserved for individuals of the opposite sex. Same-sex kissy-kissy behavior is far less prevalent.
I believe that Latins, in particular, adopt this custom because they want to assert that romantic connection is the basis for all human connection. Theirs is a sensuous and sensual culture. Its mores enact its values.
Shaking hands, Drexler explains, is a guy thing:
For men, this is newly slippery terrain. Handshakes are scripted and reliable—a firm grip, a couple of brisk pumps, and done. There is evidence of hand-shaking as far back as the fifth century B.C. It may have started as a gesture of peace by proving that the hand held no weapon.
It makes good sense that showing an open hand signifies the absence of a weapon. But, it is also true that an open hand expresses an openness to friendship. In Zen Buddhism, extending an open hand is the sound of one hand clapping.
I also agree that handshakes are highly ritualized. Hugs, Drexler notes, are often uncertain and awkward, especially when, as occasionally happens, only one person is a hugger.
Also, men normally use handshakes to size each other up. A firm handshake is taken to be a sign of good character. It has the same purpose as judging people by whether they look you in the eye or address you directly. If a man has a weak handshake he will be judged to be weak and ineffectual, someone you would not want to do business with.
In our modern world this is a problem. While some women do have firm, direct handshakes, many have, dare I say, more womanly ways to grasp your hand. (I would mention that in the past, men and women were not obliged to shake hands. After all, there was little risk that a woman was carrying a weapon.)
A woman’s weaker handshake says nothing about her character. If women have smaller hands, a vigorous handshake with a man might entail a risk of injury.
Thus, hugs are more gender-neutral than handshakes.
And yet, Drexler points out, many women prefer not to hug their bosses or co-workers:
There are many valid reasons to hug in an office setting—anything from a big team win to goodbyes after downsizing. But one senior executive I know shared some universal career advice: "Don't yell, don't cry, don't hug." His advice is backed by surveys that say that most people don't want intimacy with other workers.
Given our advanced sensitivity to harassment, we are well aware of the potential for abuse. Hugging might be more gender neutral than handshakes, but it does allow men a socially accepted way to invade a woman’s privacy.
Drexler suggests as much when she nominates Bill Clinton as the master of the art of modern hugging.
For my part I suspect that this new American custom is an affectation. It seems more like a way for people to assert that they are young and hip and enlightened. It’s more an affirmation of membership in a group of right thinking people-- something like a special, not-so-secret handshake.