Eventually, it happens. Maybe as soon as the first meeting, or maybe after a few encounters, the arms come at you, leaving no chance to object. Or duck. Or turn and run. The oncoming arms produce an involuntary response: My torso tenses and my own arms rise, ready not to embrace but to push the encroaching party away, and I bare my teeth. Of course, in deference to social convention, I contort this completely natural response into what I hope looks something like a smile. “Oh, we’re hugging,” I say, in a desperate attempt to highlight the awkwardness for my trespasser.
I am not a hugger. First there are germs to consider, but perhaps more important is the meaning behind the touch. Physical contact used to be a direct correlation to one’s feelings for the other person. As hugging becomes a common greeting, it’s losing all meaning. Therefore, when it comes to touching, I follow the “My dance space, your dance space” rule from “Dirty Dancing.”
When I share this news with people—which, for obvious reasons, is not often—I generally get one of two responses. There’s the knowing nod: “So, you don’t like people.” (Wrong!) Or there’s a question, half-sarcastic and half-cautious: “Who hurt you?” (No one! I am not the subject of a Lifetime Original movie.)
The problem, people, is not with me. It’s time to take a step back and ask when—and why—it became common practice to bypass all the steps of getting to know someone and move straight to the hug. According to Amy L. Best, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Anthropology and Sociology department at George Mason University, social norms have slowly been shifting the last few decades, and boundaries have fallen. “People are much less likely to have to abide by norms of separation and distance. Think of the Emily Post ‘Guide to Manners,’ where there would be rules about who extends their hand first or who gets introduced first,” Best says. “There are still some folks who live and die by those rules. But we’re much less likely to see that.”
This is because social hierarchy has become less important in our daily lives. The boss no longer sits in the corner office; instead, she sits with her employees. Parents are more likely to negotiate with children rather than lay down the “because I said so” law. And when it comes to our best friends, they often serve double duty as our co-workers, making boundaries non-existent. These changes have blurred the lines that often kept people apart.
Also, let’s not forget about the health risks involved with all this erratic touching. A study published this past August in the American Journal of Infection Control found that fist bumping is the most hygienic greeting. It spreads fewer germs than high fives and handshakes. Surely these British researchers would have found American hugs the least hygienic if they’d included them on the list.
I’m not suggesting we need “Downton Abbey” decorum, but a little more distance during greetings wouldn’t hurt anyone. Contrary to what the Cuddlr app users and Free Hug Campaigners would have us believe, there is a comfort in the gradual buildup of affection: the handshake on a first meeting might give way to an occasional celebratory high five or fist bump. After some genuine warmth develops (and a more relaxed outlook on sharing your germs), a relationship might merit a European kiss on the cheek here and there. Hugging it out should be the province only of an emotional moment: a wedding, a job promotion, a birth of a child. Declaring, “I’m a hugger,” should not give enterprising cuddlers license to move three steps into the next phase of a friendship.
It’s clear I’m not alone in eschewing the full, vigorous embrace. Everyone is familiar with what Best calls the “sort-of hug”: sticking your butt out and making contact only with the top of your body. Perhaps only one arm half-heartedly encircles your partner. “I think often people feel obligated to hug when they’d prefer not to,” Best says. “At times folks feel that they are not participating in the spirit of fun and getting along, so sometimes they just offer it to offer it.”
Let me address the people most often affronted by my appreciation of personal space:
Dear stranger: I just met you. Hugging isn’t going to change that fact and make us instantly closer. In fact, it’s going to make things more awkward, because after we break apart I’m going to have to ask your name again, since the only thing running through my brain during our embrace is STOP TOUCHING ME. So let’s shake hands, look each other in the eye, commit our names to memory and then continue our conversation.
Hello, friend-of-a-friend, colleague or acquaintance: I know it might be confusing with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapChat, and Yo, but here’s the thing: We don’t really know each other. While we might have a shared love of French fries and city skylines, in real life a high five will do just fine to celebrate our common interests. Granted, this can get a little confusing when our common friend goes in for a hug and arms are flying, but know that the warm fuzzy moment will be ruined by the awkward pause and shoulder shrug we do before we make contact.
Dear friend-I-see-on-a-regular-basis: You’re great. We spend our time together laughing and having adventures and eating, but you get one hug. It can be at the beginning or the end of our time together, your choice, but that’s it. If I see you tomorrow, I probably won’t hug you because we just saw each other.
So unless you’re my mother, my best friend who lives across the country or a cute boy I’m flirting with, there is a hug quota. Not to worry, stranger, new-friend or co-worker: When we do work our way up to hug status, I promise you won’t be disappointed: I’m a really great hugger.