Fear of Intimacy: A Hug Is Not a Hello


It was sometime around junior high that I started to notice a trend. It was never directed at me (at the time anyway) but I remember thinking it was really, really weird. Now, forgive me for this bit of horrible cliche, but it was the popular girls who did it: they hugged each other as a greeting. As in, they’d walk up to each other on the blacktop and embrace, even though they’d seen each other in some form or another all day. It was a hug as if to say, “Hello. It is lunchtime now.”

This struck me as significant even though it seemed like everything these girls did was part of a hollow, decorous pantomime. Though it is not their fault that I was awkward and unlikeable, I do remember finding this manner of interacting foreign in a way that silent movies are, where all the movements are exaggerated.

What I am getting at (slowly) is that around junior high the “hug as hello” became a thing. I remember thinking it would always be part of a separate world (the one with lip gloss and hoop earrings and fantastic hair) but I did not realize it would eventually become the de facto greeting for many people I’ve met. Now it’s everywhere. In college, I’d be walking along the quad and run into someone–with whom I had a class, for example–and I would be hugged. I probably had seen this person within the past, oh, eight hours. We hadn’t been separated for any traumatic stretch of time and it wouldn’t really matter if we had because we weren’t close to begin with.

Of course it began with girls. And to my mind, of course it began with pretty girls. Which explains why the behavior was inevitably adopted by girls who aspired to be pretty girls and (obviously) boys. In sixth grade I recall it seeming very superficial (the way I perceived most popular girls’ interactions) (I’m sorry to keep saying that like it’s their fault they were good looking and more self-assured) to hug someone because growing up I thought hugging was for family, close friends, and the meaningful gesture you made when having been apart for a very long time from someone you cared for. In this way, I thought what the girls at school were doing was just another demonstration of shallow kids making the noises of affection without actually meaning any of it. By which I mean they were all backstabbing assholes so constant hugging seemed paradoxical.

It follows that my discomfort with the hug greeting comes from the fact that I initially associated it with people who did and said things they didn’t mean. It still strikes me as faintly disingenuous and that’s probably why I resisted for so long. But it’s gotten to the point that I don’t resist anymore because the hug greeting is fucking everywhere. You don’t necessarily do it when you meet someone, but if you have ever met someone. Kind of like a brutalist American version of the European airkiss (which I find just as decorous but somehow less invasive).

Does hugging my friends bother me? No (and for the record, I’m pretty affectionate). As for the guy at the party I kind of recognize whose name is either Mike or Nate? I’m not a fan but I think I’ve adjusted to it. The transition did not make me happy.

For a long time I just flatly refused. I feel like if I was less awkward/more charming, I could have learned a good joke that would rescue me and everyone from the subsequent discomfort, but I’m already enough of a weirdo in social situations that shutting down marauding huggers without explanation would just make me seem like a tissue box-shoe psychopath.

This is why I have developed an excellent handshake. I thrust it out pretty much whenever appropriate (and often when very inappropriate). It’s basically the mechanism by which I tackle my fear of the greeting hug and its weird 2 seconds of false intimacy. Even if I’ve talked to a person on ten different occasions, my hand goes out. This probably makes people think I’ve forgotten them or don’t know who they are. Which is, when you think about it, kind of fitting for someone uncomfortable with (bad at) social banalities.

I doubt I’m the only one out there who still kind of resists the hug from near-strangers, but I wonder how many people noticed as it first began to happen, and how many people just went with it as it became How We Greet People. I should end this, however, by saying something in defense of everyone in the world who the greeting hug has never bothered: I have probably not developed much intellectually since sixth grade and, that same year, read two* different biographies of the band Oasis and constructed a lifesize statue of an ewok from chickenwire and paper mache. So, I’m probably in the wrong here. And everybody else is probably better at social stuff.

*Three

[UPDATE: Reader marissa points out that the rampant hugging backlash could be upon us]

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    • audrey

      You’re not the only one. I only hug family and close friends. And anyone I want to make out with.

      Actually, one particularly drunken evening I got fed up with my friend’s girl friends (I’d met them just that evening) hugging me as a greeting everytime I walked into a room. So I just pulled one into a kiss as she came for a hug. Then I pretended that it was totally normal.

      • Ashley Cardiff

        That is what we call a strong move.

      • Dude

        She still thinks about you, I hope you know that. She thinks of you when she’s alone, and wonders, “What if……”

    • marissa

      First, off, that’s hilarious, Audrey. I love it. I will remember this trick.

      Secondly, I’m so happy for this article on touching and feeling because we seem to be underrepresented. i, too, hate greeting and good-bye hugs. My real friends know that I dislike this, and respect my space issues. One friend and I wave our fingers toward each other. And my best friend and I simply say, “tap, tap” while we pat each other awkwardly without torso to torso contact. I mean, a real hug is great, but not as a regular greeting/good-bye.

      In large social outings, it’s this looming required ending to the night, and very often, I avoid eye-contact with the males in the group because more than fake greetings, I hate thrusting my breasts against random men that are asking me for a full-embrace hug when I barely know them.

    • Lindseyjake

      I couldn’t agree more.
      Growing up, hugs were saved for regretful goodbyes or a tearful embrace.
      Now I am attacked on a daily basis by these hugging maniacs.
      My in-laws are especially huggy. I love them, but I don’t feel the need to hug them every time we say hello, especially we we see each other multiple times per week. Not just the easy-side-hug, we are talking get-up-from-the-other-side-of-the-table-walk-around-to-get-a-hug. It makes me feel ingenuine. I think they should be saved for deserving moments.

    • Hmm, someone needs to get a life!

      Really? You don’t have anything better to write about? I hope this hugging trend doesn’t keep you from sleeping at night…

      • marissa

        Umm…in case you didn’t notice, this is thegloss.com. If your tastes are too high-brow for the subject, check out slate.com…oh wait, they just wrote the same article.

    • Allison

      The worst is people you just met, aka, my husbands’ entire southern baptist church. I kept giving him terrified looks that screamed “WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW TOUCHING ME?!”

      And alllll the popular kids I knew in Jr. High/High school gave wildly enthusiastic hugs every ten seconds to each other. Ugh.

      Hugs as a greeting – no.

    • Britt

      I’m with you! Especially the goodbye hugs at graduation or work parties. I’ve solved this once by instilling a group-hug goodbye, as opposed to a “I have to hug 30 people now…”

      It was slightly “everyone’s meeting in front of Bill’s office for Tacos” awkward, but it solved my problem :)

    • Lisa

      Clearly I needed more friends like you in sixth grade. A life-sized ewok out of chicken wire and paper mache? Awesome.

      Since I’m currently in college, I encounter this ALL THE TIME. Drives me absolutely nuts, especially when it comes from girls whom I’m friendly with but not bffs. It’s the weirdest thing-”OMG you’re here! SO excited to see you!” I would hope so, considering you invited me but why are you hugging me? It’s not like we don’t hang out every other weekend.

    • Aj

      Once I was walking with a group of friends and we saw a guy with whom we had lived in the same dorm with a year before. My friends did actually know him pretty well, but I had never spoken a word to him and had only saw him a few time around the dorm. So after they hugged him and he went for a hug from me, I stuck out my hand instead for what is now the second-most awkward hand shake I’ve ever had.

      I still hear about that day amongst my friends. I just don’t feel the need to hug people I don’t hold a genuine affection for.

    • kinz

      In my family there are some ultra-huggers that will absolutely envelope someone that they met once for an hour at work and then there is my mom and I who do. not. hug. Most people amazingly seem to pick up on this fact even if e have never previously met. Apperently I just look super prickly. Or another trick I’ve developed for people who don’t catch on to my blank-faced stare (honestly, I don’t care about you. I’ve already forgotten your name and nearly every other thing about you. sorry (no I’m not)) is to just remove myself from the group by 2 or 3 feet when the hugs are going aroun. Usually does the trick.

    • Caitlin

      I totally agree with this and really appreciate that where I live (in Germany) it’s very common for friends and people who know each other well to still greet with a handshake. Admittedly, I’m so ingrained with the idea that handshakes are for first meetings that occasionally make the awkward mistake of not shaking hands when I really should. But that’s just me and it’s great to have a handshake be the norm especially when greeting acquaintances where you might otherwise be left with the choice of an inappropriate hug or an awkward nod hello.

    • G

      It is like you are in my head! I have always found these uncomfortable.

      • Julia

        Me too! I hate the hug hello. It always makes me feel awkward. All my friends know it too so they’ll never hug me. But we joke about it haha

    • marissa

      http://www.slate.com/id/2287215

      YES! It’s catching on. Do you remember Free Hugs Day? Let’s start Free No Hugs day! No guilt for not hugging!

      • Ashley Cardiff

        This is awesome. The tide may be turning.

    • Rowann

      This is a very interesting cultural oddity. To me at least; as a French girl who finds physical contact awkward even with my own mother, hugs are like in my top 3 biggest DO NOT WANT EVER. I’m very lucky to live in a country where we just kiss the cheeks (we don’t actually air kiss, apart maybe from the very posh people, we give real smooches :D…or well in my case some really awkward jaw to jaw collisions)
      But even that I manage to skip sometimes. I don’t mind passing for an asshole by waving if it avoids me the embarrassment of poorly executed kisses that end up on my ear or in my hair 2 out of 3 times :| Also if I don’t know you I don’t want your lips anywhere on my person.
      So yeah, hugs. Just no. I’ve never hugged anybody besides my parents and grand-parents. Not even my brothers. Do I have to worry since I plan to live a few years in the US in the near future? D:

    • faye

      Totally agree that the cheek/air/whatever kiss is a lot less privacy-invading than the hug.

    • Carla

      I’m right there with you. I don’t like the fake hugs from people I just met.

      But Hive-Fives are my ultimate most hated cultural interaction of all. I will look at you blankly and “leave you hanging”. I don’t care. I just refuse.

      You can have a big smile and hello instead.

    • Brandie

      Thank you, thank you, Thank you! A hug is NOT a greeting!Freaks me out! Ive been a bartender for 13 years and everyone wants a hug… No ya frickin weirdo! I have a hard time hugging people I know and love, I would gladly shake your hand though.