Do You Need a Hug?

by Maria Bustillos

In a world where so much has gone horribly wrong, this outcry against hugging is just about the most unbelievable thing I have ever seen. Of all the things to take against! This is not to say that I would care to ask, let alone pressure, anybody (meaning, by “anybody,” anti-hug Katie Notopoulos of BuzzFeed) to hug, who is not comfortable doing so, though I can’t help but wish everyone on earth could experience even a small fraction of the pleasure I do from a hug.

Those who do not care to hug need only preemptively stick an arm out for a handshake, if they wish to avoid it. About 99 percent of people will take the hint; the remaining one percent who will recklessly grab you anyway have got far worse in store for you than a mere hug, I daresay. For me, at least, I pledge no hard feelings about refusing my embrace. Not everybody was raised by a passel of excitable, unbelievably noisy, affectionate Cubans! — of this I am well aware.

“Everyone thinks hugs are soooo great,” writes Notopoulos in yesterday’s post, “and if you don’t like hugging hello or goodbye, you’re some kind of socially deficient monster.” No. No judgment. And please believe me, it is just as unpleasant to feel oneself to be too warm toward others as too cold. In short, there is no “right” way to cope with the hug. Ideally we want to take people as we find them, and try to understand everyone within the parameters of his own “comfort zone,” in the old-fashioned but useful phrase. So for pretty much everyone, a calculation is taking place, the aim of which is to ensure that our own overtures are welcome, and not a matter for confusion, discomfort or horror.

Yesterday, in the wake of Notopoulos’s post, many spoke of the awkwardness of that moment, when you’re not sure whether or not a hug is expected or wanted: you look desperately to the other party for clues, you hit every kind of anxiety and panic. You may want to find a hole to crawl into for a while. The potential-hug-trouble bore additional complications, it seemed, among the XY. By the end of the day I had received the distinct impression that hugging is viewed as somewhat unmanly — is refusing them possibly a vestigial imperative of the Anglo flavor of machismo? So that the default male greeting is (must be? should be?) a handshake?

One male friend shared a terrible personal tale:

i hugged xxxxx xxxxxxxx last night because he was making an indistinct hand gesture

didn’t know what he wanted to do so i hugged him


There is the issue, too, even when the die is cast and a hug is already on the runway, as it were, of how close a hug one may risk. To touch chest to chest is a faux pas for many among whom the chaster “shoulder hug” or “Christian side hug” would be admissible. Alternatively, the other party may go in for the full-body superhug, perhaps even appending an additional coda or “hippie hug.” The correct level of closeness requires a careful and instantaneous calibration. Again — too much contact is quite as bad as too little! Or worse, even! One doesn’t care to be seen as a sweating vulgar beast who is lurching in for unwelcome physical intimacy.

But the correct level, once found, is an immediate way of expressing friendliness and pleasure in the other’s company, and other things, too: to show how much you have missed, or will miss, the other; to express one’s feelings that a meeting has been successful; to indicate acceptance of a new acquaintance to a deeper level of intimacy; to communicate sympathy, or forgiveness, or happiness, or sadness, or (if accompanied by jumping up and down) elation.

Therefore, I write to beg of those who may feel pressured to accept an unwelcome intimacy: please don’t! There is no pressure! Please indicate freely your unwillingness to hug, in terms as clear as you like, but please, please do not seek to take this harmless, conventional form of human contact from those of us who love and, indeed, may really need it. I am more than willing to offer you all the respect and consideration I can: but I ask that you do the same for us, who (you may not realize) are renewed and refreshed, who can perhaps even be recalled from unhappiness and loneliness, by this innocent, simple gesture.

The larger solitude to which each of us is ineluctably fated — Wallace’s “skull-sized kingdom” — can sometimes come to feel very like a prison. The difficulty of escape at such times is very, very great; there’s such a vast distance between one soul and another. It’s not guaranteed that a hug will always pierce that veil of solitude, but then again, for some, sometimes, it might.

A hug, then, may even be a reminder that there is more to us than whatever bullshit societal transaction or business nonsense or idiotic role-playing is being forced on us in any given moment. A hug may in fact be a (literally) palpable indicator that we are not alone in the universe. For there is one other at least, right now in this moment, real, warm, breathing like oneself, willing, like oneself, alive, like oneself. Against all the world’s cold calculations, a heart to beat, so improbably, against one’s own.

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic.

Photo by tcmorgan/Flickr.