What’s your stand on hugging people you have just met?

By Nivriti Butalia

No… noo! God, no, was the reaction of a colleague when I asked what her policy on hugging was. I asked her if she would ever deliberately avoid one — duck a hug, as it were. “No… noo! God, no” (it bears repeating). You should have seen her face. Full drama. But I got my answer. She would never be so rude as to turn away from an incoming hug. But equally, she would never ‘on her own’ initiate one for people who weren’t good friends or family.

Hugs are back in the news. Last week, in India, Rahul Gandhi in parliament orchestrated a photo-op when he lowered himself to hug the seated chronic hugger Modi, for some 0.004 seconds. Although it’s silly to expect a proper hug from a politician, that too meted out to the opposition, in full media glare, and only to prove a point, Rahul G’s was a lame duck of a hug.

The week before, in much finer execution, the smiling Croatian Prez doled out hugs to all the footies and the managers of both football teams on the rained-out grounds of the Luzhniki Stadium that Sunday evening of the World Cup final in Moscow. It was nice to watch. I felt all warm and filled with love as I tilted my phone to landscape mode to record the proceedings on my television. (I subsequently deleted the videos to keep the phone running smoothly, but in that moment, it felt like the thing to do, to document history).

Hugs have been in the news for contexts much more grim. The news of the wildfires in Greece: 26 people, adults and children, found dead, hugging each other in a field. Imagine the finality, the dread of knowing there’s no emerging from that, and smoke stinging their eyes. Under those circumstances, when you give up hope of being rescued, with death towering over you and the heat closing in, what else apart from a hug could impart any measure of comfort?

It made me think of how in extenuating circumstance, no preconceived notions would apply. Knowing I were dying, say, in an air crash, would I hug the stranger in the seat next to me? Maybe not. Maybe. I don’t know. But to hold a fixed idea seems futile.

With hugs back in the news, odes were written on how to hug, when to hug, etc. I read a column devoted to the smiling, hugging Croation Prez, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. And trawling through the comments under that column, I saw a comment I liked, and I took a screenshot of it to send to a friend:

As a young woman and a junior in the workplace I do not want to be hugged or pecked on the cheek by anyone (male or female) in any business/work context; it is incredibly intrusive and just so wrong. Physical contact is imposing. The notion that we all need a hug from anyone is just wrong. What we need is warmth and care (represented in hugs or otherwise) from those who are family and friends… For others (i.e. acquaintances, colleagues) we need open minds not open arms!

Friend agreed with the view and typed back: “I’ve never been a hugger, and have been teased to death over it”. And that, “It’s too damn intimate for me. Personal space and all that.” I replied, “Yes, yes, I know,” and added, “I think I’ll do a piece defending hugs”. Friend was shocked: “What?? You hate hugs!”

This is not true. Yes, I did write something last year heralding Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, as my hero, for declining a hug from singer Kesha. He had no idea who she was. “I just don’t hug total strangers,” he said.

I love Seinfeld’s clarity, his set boundaries. Me, I have wishy washy resolve. I, too, would like to hold a definite view such as “I just don’t hug total strangers,” but I can’t, because it depends on the vibe. You have to, ‘read the room,’ as the phrase goes, (the one I whacked from this show called The Comedy Lineup).

And I sometimes do hug strangers (and then chalk it down to flexibility). Like at that dinner some months ago, at the home of two of our friends.

As my husband and I arrived, I went through a familiar ritual: greeted the host and hostess (our friends) with a hug, and (to one of them) a cheek peck, and proceeded to mingle with the small crowd in the living room and hug three strangers as if I had known them intimately for years. In fact, I had only heard about them, and was looking forward to the evening. (“Heyyy… heard so much about you!” followed by a series of adequately warm but quick hugs.)

An eagerness to meet increases our proclivity to hug strangers, especially if they don’t appear vile. First impressions matter. You wouldn’t hug someone who comes across as a cretin, would you? Me neither.

From my host friends, I had heard about these people visiting Dubai. And they knew of me. So, there was already a relaxed vibe, a propensity to get along and be generous to each other. We already had common ground (the hosts). In these conditions, a hug as a culmination of “heard so much about you” is not odd. I, too, in these conditions, would not duck a hug. No… noo! God, no.


Nivriti is happy to shake hands, terms and conditions apply

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