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