To hug or to handshake, that is the question

I felt an arm around my shoulder and turned to find my previously ‘I don’t hug’ pastor friend giving me a side-hug! I was over-the-moon! I love hugs and I’d found it sad that she didn’t. My startled response kick-started a discussion about hugging with those around us. Here’s a snippet:

“I don’t mind hugs from the people I know well, just not when you walk into a new place.”

“I’m either in a hugging mood or a ‘don’t touch me’ mood.”

“I can’t stand it when I’m meeting new people and they go to shake hands with the male pastors and go in for a hug with me.”

Working in an all-female environment, I hadn’t spent much time considering the extent of the mismatch between the way men and women are greeted or treated in meetings, especially in church. We assume women want a hug and men want a nod/handshake/backslap. My side-hugger suddenly made perfect sense to me. She’s OK with hugs on her own terms, but never really happy with great lumbering bear hugs.

I feel strange greeting new people with a handshake as, growing up in the 80s and 90s, I’d only really seen men (not women) shaking hands. When I first started teaching, back in the early 2000s, I did get used to handshakes, but not often – only when getting a job or meeting parents. I generally clutched my teacher planner and mug so it was clear we weren’t about to shake hands.

If I had a meeting which involved shaking hands with the middle-aged men who ran the school, I felt like a child getting a certificate in assembly. So nowadays, when meeting a friend of a friend, I generally go in for a giant hug, seeing it as a compliment: our mutual friend has told me so much good stuff about them, I feel it’s a way of demonstrating the extent of their good favour and my eagerness to meet them.

Another new friend told me about the training she was given after being too scared to enter the meeting room full of men she had just been promoted to manage. Her old boss (now her subordinate) left the room to find her sitting outside and told her never to do that again, and to sit at the table (whether there’s room or not) and not be intimidated.

Whenever she does a work visit with her team, people make the assumption that she is the PA, not the boss. The company hired a consultant to teach her techniques to manage men and have the confidence to perform her responsibilities with confidence and strength. I found her confidence and business-like approach intimidating at first, but now I understand it, especially after sharing tears over the same thing and hearing how her female intuition and empathy has aided her in her work relationships.

I love cuddling. There’s so much evidence to suggest that any kind of body contact is like medicine and a 7-second hug has the ability to lower stress levels and release the ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin. There are times I get it right and times I get it wrong, but one piece of parenting advice I’ve always treasured is: if they initiate a hug, hold on until they break away from it. Unless a pan is boiling over or a cake is burning, its hugs above all else!

Considering the previous experience and emotions people are bringing to a greeting might help us understand them and avoid any awkwardness. Since Covid it does seem easier to ask if it’s OK to hug. Instead of being offended by “I’m not a hugger” I’m going to respect that stance, and it makes the impromptu hug (initiated by them) all the more wonderful when it comes!

Images by Natalia Lavrinenko from Pixabay

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