Tell someone you don’t like being hugged and you’re likely to encounter some amount of judgment, even if it’s only unspoken. People will look at you like you’re some strange new alien life-form who has just slithered out of a saucer-shaped UFO. They’ll look at you like you’re a cold and unfeeling robot. Perhaps they’ll wonder if your childhood was spent torturing small animals, and maybe they’ll entertain suspicions that as an adult you’re hiding even darker secrets in the cobwebbed clockwork of your mind.
But we’re none of those things.
One of my favorite professors in college was a woman — for anonymity’s sake, we’ll call her Dr. Godwin — who broke the ice on the first day of class with jokes about how she didn’t like being hugged. That’s one way to alleviate the judgment. Incorporate a joke. If you have a sense of humor, you’re probably not an alien or a robot or a serial killer.
She made similar jokes many times throughout the semester, to the point that I began to wonder if they were each a preemptive strike against the possibility of overly-affectionate students pulling her into a farewell embrace on the last day of class.
A hug to me is an intimate act, and handing out hugs indiscriminately can only devalue that intimacy.
A year later, as I was leaving a meeting in my adviser’s office, I ran into Dr. Godwin in the hallway. I was having a bad day. It had been about six months since we’d talked, so she stopped me and asked how I was doing.
“Not great,” I said. “Rough weekend.”
She laughed. Not quite the reaction I was expecting, given my emotional state. It took me a second or two to realize what “rough weekend” meant for the average college student. Late-night parties and mid-day hangovers.
“No,” I said. “Nothing like that. My dog died.”
Then she did something I hadn’t expected, this woman who hated hugs.
She hugged me.
And I was glad. The dog I’d recently lost was my best friend for seven years. Friends and family had offered their condolences, but no one had offered a hug. The first and only hug I received in the aftermath of that tragedy came from a woman who had expressly made it known how much she disliked them. And that made it all the more meaningful.
Truth is, I don’t hate hugs. I love a good hug. When they’re appropriate. But a hug to me is an intimate act, and handing out hugs indiscriminately can only devalue that intimacy. Under no circumstances do I want a hug from a stranger, even if that stranger is a politician whom I admire. I’m really not even fond of hugs from distant family members I see only once or twice a year.
A hug should not be something you do without thinking. They shouldn’t be relegated to the social equivalent of a handshake, unless we want them to become equally mundane.