Everyone needs a hug ... or do they?

Written by Tiffany Adams, CELI President. Click here for nationally published version of article.

Reader’s Question:  Our company meetings often begin and end with hugging.  I am not a hugger, but don’t want to be viewed as an unfriendly team player.  Should I conform or speak up?

Giving unwanted hugs can leave unfavorable impressions.  An innocent hug in one person’s eyes can spawn legal nightmares of sexual harassment charges or be perceived as intrusive and unprofessional.  There is a proper time and place for everything.  A biblical verse popularized in a song by the Byrds says it best:

“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose, under heaven…A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing”  (No doubt the millennials are collectively whispering, “Who are the Byrds?”)

Why has hugging become so prevalent in business?  We have transitioned to a more casual and diverse work environment comprised of multigenerational and multicultural talent.  To thicken the plot, some companies promote from within so groups have organically become very comfortable with one another due to their history together.  Just because the workplace has become a second home doesn’t mean anything goes.  Meeting protocol should never warrant a “hugfest.”

Cultural differences may be responsible for varying levels of comfort with respect to personal space and physical contact.  “High context” and “low context” cultures communicate differently.  Low context cultures, often associated with younger countries like the US, rely more on direct and explicit verbal communication and less on implied meaning.  The French are a “high context”, formal culture where hugs are considered overly familiar.  In an attempt to show American solidarity with the French in 2015, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, learned this lesson the hard way when he went in for a bear hug of the French President.  According to Reuter’s, an international news agency, Kerry said, "My visit to France is basically to share a big hug with Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there, who have been through a terrible time."  Mr. Kerry later admitted, “I learned really quickly that (in France) you don't hug to say hi.”  (One should pause and mirror the foreign counterpart’s greeting.)  

The good news:  You don't have to suffer in silence.  Voice your concern using one of these strategies:

Seek advice. Ask for input from a trusted mentor or veteran leader who understands your work culture and the personalities involved.

Use humor. In a group setting, jokingly expressing your discomfort can be an efficient way to get your point across to many colleagues without offending the one person.

Be honest. Simply say, “I wish I were a hugger, but I’m just not.”

Use alternative physical contact. Initiate a less intimate high five, fist bump, a back pat or handshake. An instantaneous touch of the arm is also effective in creating a personal connection.

When in doubt, don’t hug.  At the very least, ask permission first.  As the 1960s rock band sang, there is a proper time and season for everything.  Showing professional courtesy by respecting the personal space of others is always in season.