You're greeting someone or saying goodbye. Should you give that person a hug? Especially if it's someone you don't know well? You don't want to seem intrusive if you hug too soon, but you also don't want to appear overly stiff and formal if you offer a handshake when a hug is expected. What should you do?
There are, unfortunately, few good rules about hugging in our society. On one hand, Americans are famously informal and forthright. On the other hand, our nation has Puritan roots, and we are known for needing more personal space than other cultures.
How do you strike a balance? Here are some guidelines to start from, many of which come from etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success.
1. Pay close attention to body language.
With hugs, as with kisses, another person's body language will tell you whether he or she is willing to accept a hug or not. Before you go in for that squeeze, pay attention to what the person's position, movement, and facial expression is telling you. Are the feet pointed toward you or away? Is the person leaning in, or distancing him or herself? What does your gut feeling tell you this person wants?
When people offend others with a hug, it's most often because they just barge right in and don't stop to get a read on what the other person wants. Don't make that mistake.
2. Ask permission.
If you want to hug someone, and you think it's welcome but you aren't positive, just ask. "May I give you a hug?" That question indicates both affection and respect and will likely be appreciated.
The only down side to this is that many people will feel embarrassed or uncomfortable saying no. So if you're getting a negative or uncertain vibe, you're better off not even asking the question.
3. Consider the balance of power.
A boss hugging an employee is a very different matter from two business associates hugging at the conclusion of a meeting. Be extra reserved about hugging if it can in any way seem like you're using your power to disrespect another person's boundaries. This is one reason Joe Biden recently drew criticism for putting his hands on a cabinet member's wife during a swearing-in ceremony.
4. Consider the occasion.
If you haven't seen a colleague in a long time, or you've just gone through a powerful training or other experience together, or you're at a celebration, then hugging might well be appropriate. The same may apply if the person in question has just had a piece of very good, or very bad news, or is struggling to deal with a difficult situation. On the other hand, if you routinely see this person and nothing special is going on, then a hug probably isn't warranted.
5. Avoid mixing hugs with non-hugs.
You're greeting a group of people, some of whom you know well and others whom you know only slightly or have just met. Do you hug some but not others? No, Whitmore advises. Shake hands with everyone to be consistent and avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable or left out.
6. Keep it short.
A hug can go from natural to awkward if you keep it going for too long. So make your hugs brief. Whitmore recommends a duration of no more than three seconds.
7. Don't hug if either of you might be contagious.
The last thing you want to do is give your colleague a cold, or catch one from him or her. So if you're uncertain about your own health, or the other person seems to be fighting an infection, stick to a handshake at most, although not touching at all is probably safest. You can always say that you're avoiding touch out of concern that you might spread something you've been exposed to, even if you're really afraid of catching something from the other person.
8. Don't hug if you're less than perfectly clean.
Let's say you're meeting on a very hot day, and you've gotten sweaty on your walk over from the parking lot. Or you've had a workout and returned to work but didn't have time to shower. Or you've been out at a site visit and gotten grimy. In those circumstances, avoid hugging. The last thing you want to do is gross someone out.
9. Err on the side of not hugging.
If you're not sure whether a hug would be welcome, and you don't think it's a good idea to ask, then don't hug. You'll almost never offend someone with a handshake.
10. But don't be afraid to hug if the moment is right.
In spite of all these caveats, I'm still a believer in the power of human contact. So if you feel like a hug is warranted and none of the obstacles above apply, I say go for it.
I once met a business contact face-to-face for the first time after we'd been working together for several years. I felt like I knew him, and he seemed to feel the same, because at our first meeting, he greeted me with a hug. I was surprised, but happily so. During that brief meeting we talked more about our lives than about business and by the time I left, I had a human relationship to go with the emails and voice on the phone. That hug was a great way to start.