On being … a hugger

By Ingrid Sapona

Are you a hugger? I’m talking about perfectly innocent, platonic hugging. For the longest time, I thought there were two kinds of people in the world: those that are huggers and those that aren’t. Applying that simple, binary approach to the issue, I fall into the non-hugger category.

I think the reason I saw the world this way is because most of my friends are also non-huggers. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, by the way. I think the fact we don’t normally hug each other is actually something that helps bind our friendship. I’ve never felt less close to my friends because we don’t hug at hello or goodbye. Indeed, for those of us who aren’t natural huggers, it’s kind of comforting to be around others who behave the same.

But, even though I think most folks would have little trouble self-identifying as either a hugger or non-hugger, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve adopted a more nuanced view. In fact, I now think of it as kind of a bell curve with non-huggers at one end and natural huggers at the other end.

Natural huggers are folks who, without any hesitation or pause, automatically reach out toward everyone they meet with arms wide open and – before you know what hit you – they embrace you for a moment and then release you. (Please don’t misinterpret this – I’m not talking about Trump-like groping or anything.) The hallmark of a true hugger is how wholeheartedly they envelope you in their embrace.

If you’ve ever come across a natural hugger, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I love – and admire – natural huggers. There’s something so genuine about their hugs, there’s really no room for embarrassment – on the hugger’s part, or on the huggee’s part. Whenever a natural hugger embraces me, I feel a human connection that’s both grounding and transcendent.

Clustered in the middle of the bell curve is a variety of what I term social status huggers. Social status huggers engage in a wide variety of hugs. Everything from the leaning forward, bending-at-the-waist-so-that-no-lower-body-parts-touch quick clasp of the other person’s shoulder hug, to the yo-how’s-it-goin’-bro, pat-on-the back kind of hug, to the fake-affectionate cheek-brushing-cheek hug. (Of course, if you’re greeting someone who’s French, that involves both cheeks.)

The reason I think a bell curve is an apt description is because when you’re at the non-hugging end of the curve, even social status hugs can be unnatural and uncomfortable. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, surely you’ve had this happen to you: you’ve leaned into someone, ready to do the cheek-to-cheek hug thing and as the other person leans in, they quickly turn their head and you end up brushing lips instead of cheeks. Awkward! That happens because the other person grew up a non-hugger. It’s true – when you’re a non-hugger, you never know which cheek to start with!

Once I began thinking of it as a curve, I began wondering whether everyone remains in pretty much the same place on the curve their whole life. I first realized it’s possible to move along the curve when I noticed my Dad’s behaviour the last three or four years of his life. Growing up, it was clear to me that Dad was not a hugger. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, after all.) But those last few years of his life, I noticed that with increasing frequency, he reached out to give friends a hug when they parted company. It was always a subtle gesture – in fact, I’m pretty sure most of those he reached out to hug never really thought about it. But, it was noteworthy to me, not to mention touching and inspiring.

So, the past few years I’ve been making an effort to move away from the non-hugger end of the curve. I realize I’ll never be a natural hugger (by definition of the word “natural” – you are either born that way or you’re not). But, I now aspire to selectively give whole-hearted hugs in that transcendent way a natural hugger does.  

A somewhat uncomfortable encounter I had last week – or, as I suspect the huggee might put it – that I precipitated, reminded me that my technique still needs a bit of work. The circumstance was a brief meeting I finally had with a woman who works for one of my clients. She lives in Europe but was in town for a conference and so we planned to meet.

Because we’ve worked together for four or five years, I felt close to her and very comfortable chatting. At the end of our meeting, I opened my arms widely and reached in to hug her. By the time I registered the slight panic on her face, I had already committed to the hug, and I carried through with it. But, unlike a natural hugger whose sincerity seems to triumph over such awkwardness, I was a bit embarrassed. So, as soon as I released the hug, I quickly reiterated how nice it was to have finally met her and I scurried off.

Despite that little setback, I’m not giving up. Though I still value my no-hugging-required friendships, I’m determined to initiate hugs more frequently. After all, I figure most of us could use more human contact.

What about you? Where are you on the curve?

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


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