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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Challenges of Hugging

In the modern world, in many social circles, the standard form of greeting and departing has become the hug, a relatively short, perhaps four second embrace in which two individuals will engage their arm and shoulder muscles to encircle and apply moderated pressure to the other’s back or mid-torso, while perhaps smiling and shutting their eyes.

Black and white photo of two people hugging at a party.
Photo by melih bakır on Unsplash

Though hugs are everywhere, we should not suppose that they are for that matter universally straightforward or inconsequential propositions. For a small, neglected (even maligned) minority, they sit upon psychological complexities that render them quietly fraught and not a little unfrightening too. 

Some of the problem can have to do with the tantalising nature of a hug. It isn’t that the affection on offer isn’t wanted; rather that it’s wanted so much, too much for the brief hug being proposed not to come across as close to insulting in its surface nature (we might only have met our huggee a minute before and might never encounter them again). We may end up preferring not to hug at all simply because doing so evokes a longing for a kind of sustained tenderness and affection we know can’t be satisfied here. We love what the hug symbolises – loyalty, love, care – to such an extent that we choke at what is actually available. We go stiff and stand back austerely not from coldness but from a defensive craving for an intensity of warmth that has been foiled. We are too hungry to have the courage to accept what is likely to be only a morsel; we are too lonely to be casually encircled for just an instant before being sent back to our chilly freedom.

There can be a second, opposite-sounding but related inhibition. To be at ease with hugs requires that we feel no danger around a relatively high degree of physical proximity. For a moment, we’ll be in what could be a near stranger’s arms; we’ll smell their odour, our face may be in their hair, our chest will pressed against theirs – and then the protocol dictates that we’ll get on with our day as if nothing significant had occurred. But to have faith that this brush with intimacy can be executed prudently requires us to have a solid sense that everyone (and that includes us) can respect limits, be close but only so-close; and apply the brakes. Yet our histories may have included some still unprocessed encounters with people who precisely did not consider limits as they should – and thereby endowed us with a background fear that something far from benign might develop beneath an informal cover. 

We deserve compassion for our inhibitions and stiffened, unyielding attitudes. We aren’t being unfriendly or detached as we take a small step back when someone bounds amiably towards us; we just feel torn and complicated. Our characters and pasts mean we may not be able to approach what we know is just a lighthearted moment of social life with the ease we aspire to. People who care about us should have the forbearance to think of other, safer ways of offering us all that a hug can promise.

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