Hesitant to Hug

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Miriam answers a reader’s question about how, or whether, to avoid unwanted hugs.

Dear Miriam,

I recently relocated to the West Coast, and everybody hugs everybody all the time: acquaintances in the schoolyard, people you see every day, friends of friends you’re meeting for the first time, etc. I’m not the world’s biggest hugger; I don’t hate them, but I’m rarely going to initiate. Do you think I come across as standoffish or unfriendly for not hugging in a world where everyone else seems to? Can people just tell I’m not really that into hugs? I feel like I’m a Seinfeld character or something, and I would rather not be the fulfillment of my new community’s East Coast stereotypes.

Signed,
Hesitant to Hug


Dear Hesitant,

I’m so glad your question comes on the heels of last week’s post about how to teach a toddler that she’s not required to smile when a stranger asks her to. I ended up writing a lot about consent, and I’ve been thrilled by the responses I’ve gotten from readers, both parents and non-parents alike. You don’t have to hug if you don’t want to. That is the beginning, middle and end of that story. You should never feel obligated to be in physical contact with someone you don’t want to touch.

I’m also glad that I have enough of a memory to recall this post I wrote in 2013 answering a question from a man who wanted to know when it was appropriate to hug someone at work (answer: never). He was aware enough to know that sometimes his hugs were unwelcome, and I told him to pay attention to social cues to figure out when hugs might be appropriate in a non-work setting. The complicating factor for you is that you’re also trying to sort out the differences between the coasts, and whether your discomfort is cultural or personal. I would love to think that your new West Coast friends are also aware enough to read your social cues and to have their takeaway be, “She doesn’t like to hug,” rather than, “That East Coast freak.”

If you’re meeting someone once but are unlikely to see her again, you can lean away or say no thanks, but there’s always a chance the hug may happen before you can stop it. Or, if you see it coming, you can hold up your hand and wave in a way that preempts the lean in. This could totally be awkward, but again, if it’s a one-time meeting, hopefully you can just laugh it off. You may also be able to turn away for a sort of side-hug – not graceful, but perhaps preferable.

Since you’re not initiating any hugs,  I would hope that people you see regularly would notice that and catch on. If that doesn’t seem to be working, I say you should own your feelings and even use this potential awkwardness to open up to some new people. “We’re really enjoying living here so much. Can I tell you something funny, though? In New York, I never hugged any of my daughter’s friends’ parents. It’s just not what people do there. I hope no one here thinks I’m standoffish because of it, but I’m just not used to so many hugs!” You could also try, “I hope you don’t think this is weird, but I’m just not much of a hugger. Are people allowed to admit to that around here?” Of course all of this depends on your relationship with the person, but I think being emotionally honest has the potential to take the place of so much physical contact.

To tie things back to last week’s post, since you’re now raising children in a place with different cultural norms about hugs, I encourage you to talk to your kids about how to create boundaries and how to advocate for themselves when they are or are not comfortable with something. Seeing you model this will be hugely empowering to them, and depending on their ages, you can even include them in the conversation about how to communicate your boundaries to other people.

Finally, while I’m also not much for hugging strangers, I will share this: Last week, when I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten for the first time, it’s possible that I may have been crying, like, a lot. A fellow parent of a first grader came over and gave me a surprise hug and told me everything would be fine. The next day, however, she apologized. She said she’s  a big hugger but realizes not everyone is, and she hoped I wasn’t offended. In fact, I was incredibly grateful, and the gesture was not only reassuring for me, but it made me feel like my daughter is entering into a warm and supportive school community. If you’d asked me if I’d wanted a hug that morning, I would have said no, but sometimes, a different level of emotion kicks in. While I totally support you following through on everything I’ve already said about creating distance and articulating boundaries, it’s also worth finding a way not to close yourself off so much that you wouldn’t be open to a hug if it comes at the right time.

Be well,
Miriam

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