Tuesday, April 21, 2009

feel uncomfortable about hugging

This is a cross-post from Daniel Cubias's blog,
The Hispanic Fanatic. Cubias also does a column for the Huffington Post, and he writes of the Hispanic Fanatic, who may or may not be an alter-ego, that he "has an IQ of 380, the strength of twelve men, and can change the seasons just by waving his hand. Despite these powers, however, he remains a struggling writer. . . . the Hispanic Fanatic is a Latino male in his late thirties. He lives in a Midwestern city, where he works as a business writer. He was raised in another Midwestern city, but he has also lived in New York and California. He and his wife own a house where two cats and a dog call the shots."

prepare for impact

It wasn’t happy hour. It was more like unhappy hour, and it was held at a bar near my former place of employment. At the end of this going-away party for all of us who had just been downsized (see my earlier post on this), the time came to say goodbye to my former colleagues, make sincere but doomed promises to stay in touch, and exchange final hugs.

Actually, I pretty much had to skip that last one.

You see, I live in the Midwest, and most of my ex-coworkers are born-and-bred white middle Americans. As such, they are as comfortable with the idea of hugging as China is with dissent.

One of my friends, a woman I had worked with for years, announced beforehand that she rarely hugged her family members and never her friends, so I would have to settle for a handshake. Her preemptive strike was because she knew my propensity to embrace people.

It’s not that I’m touchy-feely. Indeed, I’ve been accused of being reserved, aloof, and even insensitive. On any given personality test, I always come back as introverted and quiet (not shy; there’s a difference). Bubbly and outgoing are among the last adjectives one would use to describe me.

So where does all this hugging come from? You guessed it: the Latino gene.

Hispanics hug out of instinct. We hug loved ones and acquaintances. We hug when saying hello or goodbye. We hug when overjoyed and when offering condolences. And yes, we will even hug you.

The cultural reasons for this are unknown to me. But it’s a very real phenomenon. Suffice to say, we’re perplexed at white America’s reticence and (I’ll just say it) uptight attitude about being touched.

This can lead to painful interactions, which I have witnessed at times, where the white person sticks out a hand, and the Hispanic person looks at it as if mystified at what to do with the offending object. Depending on the relationship and the setting, you may as well spit in a Latino’s face if a handshake is the best you can offer.

Even my wife, of fine German-Irish stock, was thrown off by my tendency to wrap my arms around people. I hugged her once when we were still in the “just friends” stage of our relationship, and she figured I was up to something . . . ok, she was right about that one. But that’s not usually the case.

The point is that my wife, who is extroverted and expressive, was confused by my behavior. These days, of course, she reciprocates the bone-crushing clasps that my family dishes out as greetings. It’s what we do.

And on a larger level, and at the risk of getting all New Agey, isn’t this the exact right time to hug? With a collapsing economy and nonstop wars going on, I would think more Americans would appreciate a comforting embrace.

But in fact, just the opposite is true. Over the last few years, for example, several public schools have tried to ban hugging among students. It’s supposedly to decrease the odds of a physical confrontation. The irony, of course, is that a hug is the least threatening gesture that one can make. Such policies are clearly more about America’s sex-phobia and the discomfort that adults feel whenever they see teenagers touching each other. But that’s another post.

What it all means is that at some point, every American has to decide if he or she is going to follow the example of Hispanics (who, as I’ve stated many times before, are clearly taking over the country) or withdraw into a cold world where the nearest one gets to being touched is receiving an extra emoticon on the latest text message.

In any case, if you’re meeting a Latino for the first time, remember that we’re ok with a handshake for the initial encounter. After that, however, it has to be a business meeting or similarly inappropriate setting to keep us from wrapping you up.

Either that, or we really don’t like you.


  1. Not sure I really agree with this one, I've never had a problem hugging anybody, even random strangers.

  2. Corsican153, please see the subtitle of this blog:

    The ways of white folks, I mean, some white folks . . .This post isn't claiming that all white people feel uncomfortable about hugging.

    Come to think of it, you seem like an atypical person in general if you go around hugging "even random strangers."

  3. On an interesting note, I noticed something in the opposite vein while attending a ceremony held in a roundhouse between First Nations officials and government officials last week.

    One government official (who was white) insisted in some cases on getting hugs from various chiefs while presenting the gifts.

    Now, I'm white but I'm also a huggy type of person, but this in this situation, I was a bit taken aback.

    I wasn't sure how to gauge the reaction from the chiefs, whether they were okay with it, or weren't impressed.

    They did return the hugs but at the same time, not in an overly enthusiastic manner. That and they weren't the ones initiating the hugs, nor did the hugs flow in what could be deemed a "natural" way.

    Either way, I think it's a good example of how white people utilize signs of friendship (ie. hugs) in a privileged manner.

  4. i love hugging my family and friends, and my significant other, and when acquaintances ask for a hug i'm happy to oblige. it's a friendly sign of affection--and i love affection. i will not hug strangers though, or people who have a superior status to me (i had an incident a couple years ago where a professor used a hug to make a pass at me while i was his student, and now i don't let anyone in a professional setting get close to me like that). i'm from the midwest and my family has never had issues with hugging.

  5. Oh hugging. Never fails to amaze me how something so seemingly inconsequential becomes a huge to do. I hate hugging (though I'm hispanic, and was raised by outgoing theater dorks), and have always lived and socialized with huggy thespians.

    Hugging makes me feel slutty. I have a decently large bust, and worry about it connecting with the torso of the hugger by accident.

  6. "The ways of white folks, I mean, some white folks . . ."

    Whoops, missed that. Disregard anything I said before now that doesn't take that into account. Sorry man.

    "Come to think of it, you seem like an atypical person in general if you go around hugging "even random strangers.""

    lol I don't exactly just bumble up to them and hug them, but I certainly wouldn't have a problem if they hugged me.

  7. If people are uncomfortable being hugged stop doing it to them. If it were white people hugging some uncomfortable POC's we'd get a long essay on white privilege and white people's feelings of entitlement.

  8. Hugging is not necessarily the least offensive thing that can happen if you don't want to be touched. As a WOC I constantly find that my personal space is invaded without my permission and I find it assaultive. I believe it is presumptuous to assume that just because you want contact that everyone else does.

  9. This is an interesting post. I used to not hug, until some very close friends pointed it out as a joke. At first I told them I was "not a hugger", my personal preference, end of story. In time I began to think A. why not? and B. that actually, my lack of physical affection to others actually made them feel a distance I didn't want them to feel, if not downright sad.

    Now I hug when it's appropriate - when the other person starts reaching out, or I can feel the moment is right. And I enjoy each hug, and I mean it. Hugging can be a real gift. Yes, it has to be consensual for it to really work. But I do believe in most cases, the body language and cues really tell us when that is OK. And yes, I would feel OK hugging a stranger if it was what we both wanted, absolutely.

    Is this lack of hugging a white thing? I personally kind of think it is, but that's just my general feeling, I don't have any hard statistics to back it up.

    Yours sincerely, an ex-non-hugger reformed white.

  10. Ah, hugs, I had to learn this unfortunately. I'm still unsure of "if" I should hug and usually the change gets away and I'm standing there wondering if I should apologize or slink away.

    Is a half-hug (or one arm/side-ways) the same as a full-frontal hug??

  11. Entertainingly enough, I moved to the midwest from the northeast, and I thought, "MY GOD THEY'RE ALL TOUCHING EACH OTHER."

    Just goes to show that my surprise at midwesterners' tendency to hug anything they can grab at is really only because I come from a place where contact is even less common. It was an interesting perspective-shift to read this and learn that others view midwesterners as a reticent and standoffish lot.

    At the risk of going all "hey look this is all about me" for a moment, I would like to echo what balom and Renee commented. For people who don't like to be hugged, their boundaries are legitimate and valid. It's not necessarily a sign of unexamined privilege to reject sudden and uninvited physical intimacy, and to many people that is exactly what an unexpected hug feels like.

  12. Heck, my husband is Swiss. In Switzerland, you get three kisses by the second meeting. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. It's a sweet custom.

  13. I kind of agree with Renee, Jules and Cobalt.

    I don't have a ton of friends but they are all white. So I guess I have not been much exposed to other cultures' greeting customs, except one time when I went to South America and was taken aback by a woman greeting me with a kiss on each cheek.

    My observation is that the people I know have quite a variable hugginess factor - some don't like to be hugged, which I know is because they have trust issues and/or are just not huggy; some people give tight, long, genuine hugs; some do the perfunctory half-hug, which I'd compare to when people say "hey, how are you?" and don't expect an actual answer.
    I think hugs are ok, and I don't mind getting them even from strangers or people I barely know, as long as I don't find them creepy. However, I empathize with what Jules said, in that I sometimes feel wierd hugging a guy, especially, because I feel like I have to hold my chest away from them, and if I don't, then I wonder if they think I'm being wierd by touching my chest to theirs (and I'm not even very well endowed).

    I think I am having a problem with the gist of this post, especially the part about the white person offering their hand and someone being offended by it. If someone not hugging you offends/discomfits you, but you hugging them would offend/discomfit them, who "wins?" Who gets to be the victim? And why?
    Perhaps it has something to do with cultural context, the whole "when in Rome" thing...when I went to South America and the woman kissed my cheeks, I was taken aback in the sense that I didn't expect it - but I didn't pull away, because that would have been rude; it was her culture and her country; and I had no personal reason to dislike an acquaintance kissing me. Now if she came to Canada, would I expect her to hug me or shake my hand instead? I don't know. I have different customs, but at the same time, people don't leave their culture behind when they travel.
    Although I disagreed with some things about this post, thanks for it anyway, it's definitely food for thought.

  14. "Entertainingly enough, I moved to the midwest from the northeast, and I thought, "MY GOD THEY'RE ALL TOUCHING EACH OTHER.""

    I'd be afraid of being sued for sexual harassment if I hugged someone in the northeast. They seem very big on having personal space (which is odd on how many of them are packed into the NYC metro area).

  15. My very wasp family did not hug or kiss hello and goodbye until my brother married a woman from Guyana. She and her family were all huggers and kissers. First it spread to my brother, then to my mom, then to me, then to my dad. Now, 15 years later, the entire family including cousins, aunts and uncles regularly greet each other with a hug and a kiss.

  16. The last sentence was funny..lol.

    Well I haven't particular noticed that white people have an issue with hugging although I have noticed that they are less inclined to hug but it's never been obvious to me that they were perhaps uncomfortable with hugging. This is probably because I have never had more than I'd say 1 close white friend.

    However, I have noticed that people in the Northeast are less touchy feely than people in the South after migrating farther north. I'm used to hugging my friends, holding hands, etc. And when I moved farther north everyone seemed very concerned about their personal space but I quickly turned out all my friends..lol. And now they are all huggers and kissers.

  17. A little over a year ago, I moved from a lower-class, culturally diverse town in Texas to relatively wealthy and predominately-white Virginia Beach. A lot of people the Beach accused me of being "too friendly." In my last home, a good half of my friends were Hispanic or Black, with a fair portion being of Middle Eastern or Asian descent (I'm white), and hugs were our preferred method of greeting, comforting and even expressing solidarity. Hand-holding was also not uncommon.

    I think some of it has to do with culture and a lot of it has to do with social class. Among my poorer friends, hugs were a cheap and effective way to express affection. Many of us had to work outside of school to support our families, so hang-out time was limited. We made the most of our time together, which was usually during lunches or between classes (this was from my freshman to the middle of my junior year).

    The difference may also be attributable to the fact that my current group of friends has a more even gender distribution, and a lot of my male friends are uncomfortable hugging each other or the girls.

    In Virginia, a lot of my friends have gotten more comfortable with physical affection since we met. It's still not at the same level I experienced in Texas.

    The point is, hugs are fantastic and I miss them.

  18. This isn't just a Latino thing, though. *lol* In the black community, it's VERY common for people to embrace/hug each other (mainly friends and family, though). I HATE it, because I can't stand being touched, so imagine my discomfort when around relatives.

  19. Latinos hug, and so do most blacks! You rarely see two black men greet each other with a mere handshake. And both Latinos and blacks share the (good) habit of touching others while interacting with them. I never understood the odd white notion of not wanting to be touched. All primates (and humans are primates) of all species hug, touch, hold each other, and have a ritual of "grooming" which is an act of touching and comfort.

    I tend to avoid people who have an aversion to being touched. The term "out of touch" comes to mind, and I do not find such people comfortable to be around.

  20. Am from India, but live in US.It was strange to see people hugging or lovers kissing in public initially when I came to US.In most parts of India (except for some metros) hugs and kisses are so uncommon, infact even handshake is uncommon..they greeted people by saying 'Namaste'.The newer generation are different though..they might just say 'hi'. What is shown in Indian movies (bollywood) is not necessarily representation of Indian culture. Btw interesting blog, obvious but good observation of cultures..

  21. Huh. Must be a New Yorker thing, because I've always felt it was the other way around too. In my experience, overtouchers are always white. I live in California now, in a very white town, and the touching is completely out of control: the two-handed handshake. The upper-arm grip. The upper-back touch. The lower-back press. The all-up-in-your-personal-space. And (constantly) the it-was-nice-to-meet-you hug.

  22. Glad to read this post. I live in the midwest too. Once, after receiving a gift from a friendly acquaintance, I hugged her. It's not as if we'd just met - our kids had played together, I'd met her wife, etc. Anyway, she turned beet red. I apologized and made mental note to keep arms to self unless hugs initiated by others.

    Also - I respectfully disagree with previous poster who said hugging is a class issue. I have found hugging common in various communities of color that would be considered upper middle class or upper class. As with everything, I guess, your mileage may vary.

  23. I remeber as a kid, kissing my family on the lips as a greeting, then it moved to kissing on the cheek, now when I go out to the midwest, they are very uncomfortable with any kind of kissing, they prefer to just hug then I come back to nyc and europeans seem uncomfortable with hugging but would rather kiss on both cheeks. New Yorkers generally kiss on one cheek, uhg! Then you have the big italian grandmothers and you don't have a choice, you have to just do whatever they do to you which is usually all of the above. Of course I speak in general of groups of people, not all. I think there should be a map of the world that tell's you how to greet people, just like there are maps of dialects.

  24. Hugging is not just a Hispanic tradition. I am from the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) and almost everyone here hugs as well. When I was a child, there were hardly any hispanics living in Alabama. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until the 1990's that the hispanic population in Alabama began to explode. It is just part of the heritage of southern hospitality. I am however married to a Chicago girl and her whole family is standoffish on the hugging ritual, but if you're family, you're family and we hug them anyway. Whether they are yankees or not...LOL

  25. I'm from south america and just as pretty much europe, we kiss on the cheek for greeting and goodbye, we also hug, but hugs are more for family and friends, if presented with a formal setting probably a handshake will do, but overall we find the handshaking really cold and some people might feel rejected if you extended your hand in anticipation to avoid a cheek kissing.

    About all this "unwanted advances" paranoia, I can't believe someone would feel so threatened by a kiss on the cheek or a hug, some people have a way to turn everything into sex, when normaly a kiss or a hug is just a greeting, no more not less.

    Seriously someone ppl think everyone wants to get in their pants, weird.


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