Juliet Lapidos strikes a blow for a return to more formality. She’s a woman after my mind, if not my heart. When people try to hug her, even when they succeed, she is thinking to herself: get your hands off me.
In a world where everyone is on a first name basis—see Sunday’s post—one’s physical space, if we may call it that, is routinely violated by people we barely know. Worse yet, it is also violated by people who we know as friends but to whom we are not quite that close.
And it is very difficult to turn away from someone who is opening his or her arms offering you a hug. If you should want to do so, preempt the process by extending a stiff arm toward your friend or acquaintance. At once you will be offering a handshake and will be making it impossible for the friend to abuse you by grabbing you.
Granted, with the right person, I enjoy a well-placed hug. The right persons include: blood relations, my boyfriend, and close friends. By "well-placed" I mean before or after a lengthy separation, as a form of congratulation (you're getting married!), as a means of consolation (you're getting divorced?), or to ward off hypothermia. That's about it (though I should specify that I waive the category requirements for my boyfriend).
So why is it that when I go over to your house for dinner, you wrap your arms around me, even though I saw you last Friday at the movies? And why do you come at me again after the meal is over, even though we hugged not three hours ago and I'll probably see you next week at that party? It's not that I don't like you—I do—but it's such an awkward interaction. One arm or two? Should there be space between us? How much? Should I brush my cheek against yours? Maybe even kiss your cheek? And for how long, exactly, should we be touching? I think you just nuzzled my ear with your nose, should I ignore that? OK, it's one thing for you to hug me, since we're old pals, but your girlfriend too? I hardly know her, you'll probably break up soon, and I've never liked the sensation of breast-on-breast contact.
The excessive familiarity of promiscuous hugging, she continues, makes a mockery of true intimacy. Treating everyone like an intimate means that no one is really an intimate.
In her words:
Like form letters that mimic the conventions of personal notes, obligatory hugs mock true intimacy. "Dear Janet," aspiring-City Councilman Brad Lander e-mailed me after he won his Democratic primary, "Well, we did it. After two years of incredibly hard work, we won a great victory." Oh, did we? My name's not Janet, but even if it were, I'd prefer madam. Dear Madam is prim, but honest. 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.
Lapidos did some research on this intrusive habit, one that did not exist in the bad old days when people respected themselves and each other.
One expert saw it as akin to our overly informal use of first names:
Next I e-mailed NPR's resident etiquette expert, Karen Grigsby Bates. She suggested that "the hug is the American answer to the European double-cheek kiss" and that it's "descended from the American ethos of hyper-friendliness. You know, the same impulse that has us calling people we hardly know by their first names."
What can you do? Lapidos offers some alternatives:
There are several hug alternatives, among them: the handshake, the cheek kiss, the wave, the arm squeeze, and the nod. Handshakes seem formal, cheek kisses un-American, waves rather odd. Arm squeezing (warm, but not falsely so) would be a good solution if it weren't for the danger of getting pulled into something more full-bodied. The nod, though, can be very effective when combined with a smile, especially when executed with confidence and with one hand already grasping the door handle.
But, what about the bow, the way people in Japan do it.
Why do they do it? Because the Japanese live in very close quarters in a populous country. They understand that handshakes and hugs communicate germs. So they bow politely while placing their palms together, the better to make it clear that an open gesture is not forthcoming.