Congratulations are due to Bubba Watson for his admirable performance in our new national sport.
Not golf. Hugging.
On Sunday, Watsonwon the Masters golf tournament.
And then the hugs began.
He hugged his caddie. He hugged his mother. He hugged pro after pro. He hugged his caddie again, at length and tearfully.
As I watched him enfold person after person in the warm circlet of his arms, I couldn’t help realizing how far the epidemic has spread.
Everywhere you look, people are hugging. Friends. Strangers on trains. Bears. Politicians. The first lady. Especially the first lady. One day, just for fun, she surprised all the visitors to the White House with hugs.
When did hugs become compulsory?
You meet someone for the first time, you shake her hand. You meet her a second time, and she expects a hug. Sometimes she expects the hug before the first meeting is even over.
It’s a fairly recent development. Once, we greeted people by running at them with lances. Then someone wisely came up with the handshake instead. Some think that the handshake was a way of demonstrating to strangers that you were unarmed. If you had a sword in your right hand, it made hand-shaking difficult, to say the least. The hug escalates that. Just try hugging with a sword. You can’t. You can barely hug someone with an umbrella.
Candidates are no longer required simply to kiss the occasional baby. They have to hug grandmothers and volunteers and their wives, every time they appear anywhere, to show warmth. But careful! Not too much warmth!
On Twitter, after the Bubba Watson Hugapalooza, Twitter lit up. One man tweeted, “Remind me to never hug Bubba Watson. That bro hug with his caddy was about 5 seconds past regulation.”
Yes, along with the kudzu-like spread of the hug, there’s a whole set of codes. The most closely scrutinized hugs are those between guys — the “bro hug.”
You know the one. Two guys lumber together for an emphatic and brief shoulder clasp, focusing on touching as few body parts as possible below the shoulders. One second too long, and throats start being cleared noisily.
Then there’s the girl hug. You spot your quarry across the room and yelp, “HEYYYYYY! CAROL!” Carol responds with with “Hey!” and some variant of “OH MY GOD IT’S BEEN AGES LOOK AT YOU!” as the occasion warrants. You extend your arms fully, like ice tongs, as you move closer. Then you clasp each other warmly, murmuring indistinct things.
Girl hugs are mandatory even if you hate each other and the last time you laid eyes on one another was when Carol stole your last dime and shot your cat. Oscar Wilde noted, “When women kiss, it always reminds me of prize fighters shaking hands.” That’s girl hugs, in a nutshell.
There’s the family reunion hug. The two parties involved in one of these generally have diametrically opposed ideas of how long it is supposed to last. You start pulling free, but Aunt Tilly clings on. Then Aunt Tilly pulls free and you cling on. This continues for a while until cousins show up and you need to hug them instead.
There’s the line hug, where a line that started off as a hand-shaking greeting line somehow metamorphosed into a hugging line and, by the time you make it to the bride or Rick Santorum, you are obliged to hug each other awkwardly about the shoulders as you both grimace.
This can sometimes lead to a hug stand-off, when two people think they should probably be hugging but neither is quite willing to initiate. Instead, you perform a sort of crablike dance, arms outstretched.
“Bring it in,” you or the other person says, finally. And you do.
But must we?
In stand-offs, the person who wants a hug always wins. Once someone has decided you should be hugging, it is almost impossible to force a handshake on them. If you really want to avoid hugs, the only way is to carry around something large and unwieldy at all times. And even then you can sometimes be ambushed — say, by the first lady leaping out from around a corner.
Somehow, we have gotten the idea that an ability to hug strangers is a good marker of warmth.
This seems erroneous, at best.
We’ve reached the point as a society where someone like Mitt Romney is expected to hug people in order to become president. Not dozens of people; thousands upon thousands of people. This is patently ludicrous. True, Temple Grandin found that hugs could reassure cows on their way to the slaughterhouse. But need we replicate this in the political process?
Perhaps I’m biased. I come of WASPish stock, so my family hugged just once a year, during the solstice. For the most part, we depended on handshakes and small checks to express emotion, except for occasions where real warmth was needed, when we would clap one another on the shoulders and mutter, “I’m only mildly disappointed in you.” We cried at “Titanic,” but only because of the boat’s obviously poor design and the waste of capital involved.
Bubba Watson’s hugs may have gone on too long, but they were genuine. More hugs should look like that. Social hugging dilutes the joy of real hugging. In Singapore, you are required to seek permission before hugging someone. How idyllic life must be!
What happened to the good old-fashioned handshake? When did it become a sign of standoffishness, rather than a sign of “Hello, I have just met you, and I am unarmed”? All I ask from people I have just met is that they be unarmed. I do not need proof of their emotional warmth.
“You sound upset. Let’s hug it out.”