The word hug is of uncertain origin. In place of a proper etymology the Oxford English Dictionary cautions against confusing it with hugge— a variant of the Middle English ug, meaning to inspire with dread, loathing, or disgust. While I believe in the OED’s near-infallibility, I nevertheless find myself drawn to the possibility that hug does, in fact, have some kinship with ug. It seems apt to me. At the prospect of a tight embrace, dread and loathing, if not disgust, do come to mind. So does the sound ug.
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.
Or take the long weekend when you generously invited me and 15 others to your house. When it was time for us all to leave, there ensued a veritable orgy of hugging. I’m certain I hugged some of your guests more than once because we couldn’t remember if we’d gotten around to each other yet. I didn’t know some of their names—they were your acquaintances, not mine—and I may never see them again. But we hugged. Maybe twice.
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.
Hugs have not always been expected of me. I don’t recall hugging people much in high school; we just waved at each other or bumped fists ironically. My freshman year of college suddenly people were shaking hands. Nice to meet you, I think we might be in the same Religion in Modern America: 1840 to 1970 lecture, we’d say, shaking hands, trying on adulthood. Then, post-college, when I no longer saw my friends quite so frequently—once every week or two instead of daily—the hugs of greeting came in torrents.
I’m willing to believe that some people really, really love to hug. They rush to enfold not only family and friends, but also friends of friends and near-strangers. They delight in applying pressure and rocking from side to side. Yet most people are just going through the motions; they’re looking for a way to say hello or goodbye, and so they open their arms wide. Not wanting to seem rude, or like one of those people who cringes when touched, I open my arms, too, submitting to the ritual of friendship. That, or I make sure I’m carrying something bulky, try-but-fail to get an arm free, and get away with a grin.
After one particularly confounding interaction (me, in a goofy voice: How about a handshake? Acquaintance: Awwww, just come here!) I looked for expert counsel. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, offered her sympathy: “I’m with you on this, but I’ve become a non-hugger who hugs. Recently after breakfast with a new friend I went in to hug her goodbye and I could see a kind of horror in her eyes, but it was too late to back off and say, ‘I’m really not a hugger, either.’ ” That’s me: The girl with the look of horror in her eyes.
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.” She recommended that I just stick out my hand and say “so nice to see you again” to pre-empt the hug. Very reasonable, but please refer to the parenthetical above to see why this doesn’t always work.
I also did some research on the Web site for the Emily Post Institute, which specializes in manners. It explains that, when greeting someone, you should look him or her in the eyes and smile, speak clearly, say the person’s name, add a “glad to see you” or “how’s it going” and then shake hands, right hand to right hand, palm to palm, thumbs up, with a firm grip (not too tight, not too limp), pump two to three times, and then release. The institute further suggests adding a hug “if it’s a relative or close friend.” No mention of friends of friends or friends’ dates. Nor any specific information on what a proper hug entails. When I pointed this out to the extremely well-mannered Daniel Post Senning (great-great-grandson of Emily Post and the institute’s manager of online content), he mused that, unlike the handshake, there is no standard-hug format. He did suggest some basic guidelines: Don’t squeeze too hard, don’t sneak a kiss, and don’t linger. Crucially, for my purposes, he also noted that greetings should be preceded by a “moment of consideration” when you ask yourself “is this appropriate?” If I’m the intended recipient of your hug, the answer is probably “no.”
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.