I am a connoisseur of fine hugs. I think hugs are pretty cool and I’ve been a careful student of hugging for a long time. There are lots of different kinds of hugs and how we hug says a bit about us, I think. There are obligatory hugs and ‘duck in’ hugs and shoulder to shoulder hugs and full frontal hugs. There are nervous hugs and happy hugs and hugs that send unintended messages. There are inappropriate hugs and hugs that speak entire paragraphs. How, when, and where we were raised often dictates how we hug, or whether we hug at all. Some people seldom hug, some people hug everybody, and some people just need a good hug.
I grew up in a family that did not hug much. Mom and my siblings were not huggers. My Dad used to hug me occasionally. He would sit in that big chair with the flat arms and wrap his long muscular brown arms around me and my brother and it felt like all the world was safe and good. It is my best memory of my Dad. The smell of Old Spice, his rich rumbling voice, the farmer tan. His hugs are one of the ways I know God is real and close and a good Dad to his kids. When I was ordained as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, my brother observed all the people hugging and congratulating me and became jealous so he grabbed me and hugged me and told me he was proud of his big brother and it was the first time we ever hugged. It was awkward, but I loved it. We have hugged ever since. Our family has become a hugging family. My Mom is so frail that I have to hug her gently lest she break. But it has become one of the ways that I tell her of my love for her.
Man to man hugs are often clumsy. I think women have an easier time with same sex hugging. Not being a woman, I could be wrong about that. I know men get nervous about hugging men and I think that sometimes in our North American culture we are pretty hesitant to hug other non-family males. There must be something in the testosterone that keeps us from expressing our love for each other by hugging. Most men, if they hug another man, will do a shoulder to shoulder hug. The shoulder to shoulder hug is what I call a ‘good buddy’ hug. If we lose our nerve as we head in for the hug, we can always turn it into a slap on the shoulder. ‘Good buddy’ hugs are the safest hugs. If I had a teenage daughter I would want her to do ‘good buddy’ hugs, especially to any boy. Actually, if I had a teenage daughter and a guy tried to hug her, I would have to go into full Kenpo karate mode and make sure that he could never wrap his broken arm around her again.
You will seldom see men do the ‘clingy hugs’ that women can get away with. For some reason women are freer to express deep emotion, I think. I often see women with their faces buried in each other’s shoulders, tears streaming down their faces, and hanging on to each other for dear life. It is not that men don’t want to do that. We have deep emotions, too. Well, at least some of us do. But most guys fear ‘clingy hugs’.
Man to woman hugs and woman to man hugs are often more awkward because of the sexual connotations, but there is far more freedom in hug expressions. If we are nervous we can always do the safe, single arm ‘buddy hug’. We can also do the ‘duck in’ hug. The ‘duck in’ hug is more intimate than the buddy hug, because it is a two armed hug. The ‘duck in’ works best if both participants are ducking in. That way breasts and chests never touch, and there is no sexual issues involved. Avoiding face to face contact in the traditional ‘duck in’ is important. Ideally both arms do a half wrap and cheeks turn slightly out. This feels more intimate than a ‘good buddy’ hug, but is a little bit like the ‘greeting time’ at some churches. The pastor tells everybody to greet each other and it is intended to make us feel intimately connected, but often has the opposite effect. False intimacy is not better than no intimacy at all.
Some people do modified ‘duck ins’ by coming at it from the side and squeezing the person’s waist. Side ‘duck ins’ are often uncomfortable for people who are mismatched in height or waist size since the squeeze can end up being a pat on the rump or a touching of the breast. You need to be equally matched, in love, or have a good aim to risk side ‘duck ins’. I’ve also seen and experienced ‘cheek to cheek’ hugs. When combined with the ‘duck in’ these can become quite intimate. However, if it is only a ‘cheek to cheek’ hug or a ‘near cheek’ hug, you might be European, sophisticated, an elderly aunt, or from the deep South.
‘Full frontal’ hugs are mostly what we often think of when we think of hugs. The whole breast and chest thing becomes an immediate issue in ‘full frontal’ hugs. A ‘full frontal’ hug is a most intimate hug. It is highly risky. Holding a ‘full frontal’ too long sends a certain message and you better be sure you want to send that message before you hang on for that extra second or two. Boundaries are an issue with ‘full frontals’. You can ruin a good potential friendship with an early ‘full frontal’. You can tell a member of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you are gay) that you are more interested than you really are, or less interested than you are, by misusing the ‘full frontal’ hug. ‘Full frontal’ hugs can be a bellwether of the current status of your relationship. That is why they are so socially dangerous. If people ‘full frontaled’ you in the past and suddenly clap you on the shoulder and call you, “Buddy,” there is probably an issue in your relationship. This is particularly true if it is your spouse who is doing the shoulder clap.
“Romantic’ hugs are my favorite and I need to say little about them. When we see people in love draped all over each other we wax nostalgic, turn up our noses in disgust, wish they would just get a room, or remind ourselves of the person we are head over heels in love with and that should cause us to remember to sweep her into our arms or grab him in a lip lock the first chance we get. Kathy gave me little love notes before we got married and one of those notes I carried in my wallet until it was completely obliterated. It read, “The best way for a husband to win an argument is for him to take her in his arms.” I tried to practice that throughout our marriage. It doesn’t always win the argument, but it often leads to good things anyway. Just a side note: never ever hug from behind unless you are married, a professional wrestler, or a bear. You can get your nose broken if you hug people from behind. Definitely not good.
After preaching at a church in Phoenix, several ladies hugged me, as I stood at the door greeting the exiting parishioners. A lady I did not know was just behind the group of huggers. She said as she approached, “I am moved to hug you because you spoke to me so clearly in your message causing me to think I know you more intimately than I do. A handshake, however, would make me feel far more comfortable.” I shook her hand and admired her for making her boundaries clear. Honoring boundaries is important. People often send clear body language messages and we should learn to be aware of them and not hug folks who do not wish to be hugged. That said, we will always have to endure the hugs of boorish people who have their own agendas and are unaware of how repulsed we are by having them hug us. My Dad developed the ‘stiff arm’ approach to warding off impending and unwanted hugs. A lady he was not fond of often tried to hug him and he would stick out his hand to shake her hand. He would lock the elbow to make sure to be able to stand against her weight. Alas, she swatted the hand away and said, “I don’t shake hands, I hug!” in no uncertain terms. We often teased Dad about the failure of his ‘stiff arm’ technique.
Oh, and don’t clap people on the shoulder hard. I have a very sore shoulder and it brings tears to my eyes when people smack it. I have seen those who struggle with arthritis cringe at a handshake. A guy I knew was proud of his powerful handshake until one day he crushed the bones in a lady’s hand requiring her to undergo surgery. I remember him tearfully apologizing to all of us whose hands he had hurt by ‘shaking hands like a man’! Remember that all handicaps are not visible. Be aware of the physical condition of hugees. Beyond that, there are many who have difficulty with being hugged because they have been abused or mistreated or because of the emotional scars that even they may not be aware of. It is loving to not hug those who struggle with being hugged. I have noted the courage of those who have been abused, risking being hurt again by ‘ducking in’ and awkwardly hugging someone for the first time in a long time. It is a beautiful gift to have received those kinds of hugs. If your are the recipient of such a hug, treasure the gift.
You may hug me if you wish. If I have hugged you and you wish I wouldn’t don’t be afraid to let me know. Paul instructs the church to greet each other with a ‘holy kiss’. I can’t even imagine the kinds of problems that must have created. The key word must be ‘holy’. :)