“Reminder,” read a headline on the Girl Scouts Facebook page in November. “She Doesn’t Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays.”
It seemed like a perfectly timed message for girls as the #MeToo movement picked up steam. But the reaction was vehement.
“You have gone overboard,” blasted one commenter among the hundreds of fiery responses. “One, no one MAKES a child give a hug. Two, don’t assume physical affection leads to negative behavior.”
Countered another, “It’s about teaching a kid that her body is HERS, even from a young age.”
Who would have thought that hugging could trigger so much ire? After all, America has become a nation of huggers, clutching each other every chance we get. We hug to say hello and goodbye. Presidents hug. Total strangers hug. It’s a sign that we’re open. That we’re caring.
But now we have #MeToo. And it turns out that not everyone wants a hug.
The Girl Scout dust-up exposed a deep division. On one side stand those who wonder why it has suddenly become wrong to wrap your arms around another person — like, say, a co-worker — and hold them in a warm embrace. On the other are those who want to know why anyone ever thought it was right in the first place.
What makes the hugging question so tricky is that from the outside, all hugs look benign. Only the huggee knows whether what’s coming is a welcome embrace or slightly icky.
Take an incident last summer, when Kesha bounded up to Jerry Seinfeld on a red carpet at a charity fundraiser and pleaded for a hug as the cameras rolled. The comedian — who explained later that he didn’t recognize the pop star and feared she was an overly zealous fan — told her “No thanks” and stepped away from her. Kesha let out a wounded whine and slunk off.
So who was in the wrong? Everyone and no one, it seems.
“I find it kind of hysterical that we go for the hug, even though we are really unsure of the hug,” said Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, which is devoted to solving the nation’s etiquette quandaries. Post believes that we hug too much.
“The reason I can say that is because we have these reactions,” she said. “It gets awkward, or someone has to say something ahead of the hug to stop the hug from happening. If we were really OK with hugging, we’d just hug.”
A Texas sheriff who announced huffily on Facebook last year that he was quitting giving hugs because the workplace “can become hostile if an employee ‘feels’ threatened by your hugs.”
“So it’s over,” he fumed.
History of hugging
No one is sure when the first hug happened, but it likely was instinctive. It’s a universal gesture that occurs in all cultures. And not even just among people; primates have been observed hugging.
There’s no clearly defined moment when the hug became the gold-standard American greeting, nothing definitive about when we shed our stoic American reserve and started hugging on every holiday, every first date and at the end of every argument.
Sammy Davis Jr. infamously wrapped his arms around President Richard Nixon at a 1972 event, leaning into the come-from-behind squeeze with closed eyes and a beaming smile as he showed his controversial support for the candidate. Pope Francis embraced Sunni Muslim leader Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb in 2016, telling onlookers, “Our meeting is the message.”
Queen Elizabeth was moved to give Michelle Obama a little side hug in 2009, setting English tongues wagging because it was a clear break from Her Majesty’s strict no-touching protocol. And when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enveloped President Donald Trump in a bro hug last year, it might not have made such a stir if the embrace hadn’t cut short Trump’s usual protracted and vigorous handshake with foreign leaders.
As for former President George W. Bush, he hugs, well, everyone.
For some, the hug has taken on divine meaning. An Indian saint known as Amma travels the world hugging followers who have been known to line up for hours just for a life-affirming cuddle. After the 2016 presidential election, a Massachusetts man started “Hug It Out America,” a one-man effort to connect with strangers.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Brainard and Delia Carey — a performance art duo called Praxis — opened their arms to legions of New Yorkers, offering free hugs in a storefront.
“It was the comfort people needed,” said Brainard Carey, adding that the emotional resonance of their project led them to hugging performances at major arts institutions. “It sounds like we’re doing this enormously altruistic thing — giving hugs to everyone. But you have to remember, we’re also receiving hugs from everybody. After a day of doing that, you get kind of high.”
Science affirms the idea that hugs may be good not only for the soul but also for our physical well-being.
“There are data showing that hugging provides a buffer to stress,” said Srini Pillay, a Harvard psychiatrist who studies brain science. “People will often recommend hugging as a form of social bonding that calms down the fight-or-flight system.”
A good, solid hug releases oxytocin, may improve the immune system and lowers blood pressure.
“But when the hug is awkward,” Pillay warned, “I can’t imagine that what is actually happening is that the person is becoming calmer.”
Whether you’re for or against hugging, Post said, everyone should keep in mind that culturally the hug has become iffy territory.
“A hug can feel too intimate to some people, especially now, in an era when we’re illuminating how women feel on a daily basis,” she said.