I never really learned how to hug. Whenever a friend, extended family member, or celebrity interview subject approaches me for the first or the 100th time, the panic sets in. Are we hugging here? Oh, we are? So my arms are going over—OK, under. One over, one under? Or is this an open-faced, one-arm-clutching-the-opposite-shoulder situation? Should our torsos graze? Is that weird? Where is your mouth—are you making a legitimate attempt to kiss my cheek right now, or are we doing one of those pretend ones? Dear God there’s no time: I have anchored my ass a foot away from your body, flattened my face into your clavicle, and am now waving my rag-doll arms limply from between your armpits. Great to see you!
In theory, a hug sounds nice. In practice, it can turn even the simplest hello into a logistical nightmare. But the most pernicious aspect of the act is the false sense of intimacy it imposes over all human relationships, from the most superficial acquaintances to the deepest friendships. It doesn’t matter if we love each other, hate each other, or don’t know each other at all—we’re all expected to awkwardly collide at the same rate, reducing a potentially intimate act into a rote affectation.
I am not an automaton. I can appreciate the experience of physical and emotional communion—on occasion. There are some bodies—boyfriends, parents, domesticated lions I’ve reintroduced into the wild—with which I will gladly entangle for a two-second count upon greeting. And then there is Lady Gaga.
“I will always, always, try my very best to wrap my arms around you when I meet you,” Gaga has said. (Note that even the most elite hug enthusiasts can only “try their very best” to pull the thing off.) Gaga is a member of what New York magazine has identified as the new class of power huggers who wield the embrace to cement their social dominance over all within their grasp. The artist Marina Abramović has pledged to exchange hugs for donations to her Marina Abramović Institute. (Can I pay her not to hug me?). NYU President John Sexton displays a plate in his office that reads “HUGGER.” (Is that a threat?). First lady Michelle Obama once slung an expertly toned arm around the Queen of England in direct defiance of royal protocol. (Are the Brits stuffy, or are they simply correct?).
It is time for us to recognize the hug for the charade that it is. Rarely is it a gesture of sincere fellowship, compassion, or affection. More often, it is a soulless imposition that is gravitating toward its victim at an alarming rate. So next time I see you, let’s try keeping our limbs to ourselves. It’s nothing personal—and that’s the point.