When to Hug Someone

Friends Hugging

Have you ever tried to hug someone and realized it was a mistake?

The person was so stiff you felt like you were hugging a cardboard figure.  Or you went in for a full-on hug, but he went for a side hug and the whole thing became awkward.  Maybe you ignored her extended hand and just hugged her instead before realizing it wasn’t a wise choice.

Hugging acquaintances, coworkers, and even some friends and family members, is a bit of an art.  To do it correctly requires your attention to details.  If done incorrectly, or with poor timing, you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation.

Let’s explore how to avoid this.

The Body Language of Huggers

Typical huggers usually have “open” body language.  Their eyes bright with a smile, arms at their side and perhaps slightly raised, feet forward, ready to move in for a hug at any second.

On the other hand, people who aren’t making eye contact with you, have their arms and/or feet crossed, or keep a bit of distance from you, are probably not going to appreciate a hug.  At least not at that moment.

There are also different types of hugs.  Fortunately, each one is fairly predictable:

  • The full-on hug - usually predicted by someone coming directly at you with arms open.
  • The side hug - when someone comes from any direction, but steps to an angle or to your side.
  • The slight embrace with a kiss on the cheek - predicted when someone touches your arm(s) and moves her head toward yours to give a kiss on the cheek.  What is sometimes unpredictable is whether there will be a kiss on the other cheek, too.  (And remember not to move your head if you want to avoid a kiss on the lips.)

When in a group, or when greeting others at a party, observe the group protocol and follow suit.  If you are a newcomer and/or uncomfortable with what everyone else is doing, extend your hand for a handshake when you first meet them.  Then, if your comfort level increases as the event goes on, give hugs as you exit.

Ask or Give Warning

You may find yourself in a situation where you want to hug someone, but aren't sure if you should.  Maybe it's your coworker's last day at the office, or you're with someone who has received bad news and is too upset to display "open" body language.

It's okay to ask if you can give them a hug.  Something like, "We'll miss you around here.  Is a goodbye hug welcome?" or "I know you're upset.  May I give you a hug?"

A warning is fine if you think there will be any appreciation for your hug.   You can even lighten a tense or sad moment (or make a happy moment better) by saying with a smile, "Oh, you're gonna get a hug!" 

However, use this technique carefully.  It is not appropriate to make light of a tragic situation.  Instead, focus on showing concern and providing comfort to someone in a time of need.

A Good Time to Hug

It's almost always a good time to hug!  But like most enjoyments, too much hugging can raise a few eyebrows.

You might want to keep your hug to yourself if:

  • You are greeting or saying goodbye to more than one person, and you won't be hugging everyone.  For example, at a business gathering when you might say goodbye to your close coworker with a hug, but the CEO - who you don't know as well - is also standing there, and a hug would be awkward.
  • Stopping to hug someone will be too disruptive - busy doorways and lobbies, or anywhere there is a crowd of moving people.
  • You work in a conservative office environment where the culture is very professional.

There are always exceptions to these guidelines.  In exciting, celebratory moments, hugs, high-fives, and "Oh yeah!" are always appropriate.  Even people not involved in the situation will end up celebrating with you.  After all, joy is contagious and we could all use more of it.

Hugs are wonderful, and the perfect non-verbal way of saying you care, providing hope and comfort, and sharing a connection with someone.  Which is why, on some level, we all crave them (as demonstrated in this video).

But it is also good to remember that hugging can place you in a close, personal moment with someone.  In most social and business situations, it's usually best to be wise about it and choose that moment, and that someone, with a little prudence.

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