When Will New York's Hugging Epidemic End?

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask.

Executed maybe 20 hugs last night. Bit of over-under weirdness. Couple of is-this-a-handshake-oh-it’s-a-hug things. Minimal suffocation. B+

— Amanda Hess (@amandahess) October 23, 2013

Amanda! So what happened here?

I recently wrote a story at Slate arguing that people should stop hugging each other all the goddamn time. A hug with a loved one is nice. But when we outstretch our gangly arms to just about everyone, it becomes an awkward, impersonal display, and even — in the case of power-huggers like Lady Gaga — a personal branding exercise. Some huggers saw the piece as a slap in the face. Strangers responded by saying that I sound like I need a hug (false), or that I have an undiagnosed sensory disorder or am a sociopath (possible!). These are people who are hell-bent on smushing their upper bodies against other upper bodies at every opportunity, so their emotional projections were unsurprising.

A few weeks later, I found myself packed into a SoHo event space for a book release party with several hundred far-flung co-workers, writers I have interacted with only on the internet, and a handful of dear friends whom I love very much and rarely see. It was a hug etiquette minefield. While I’m comfortable making the case against default hugging culture in the isolation of my own apartment, I also don’t hope to offend those with a more liberal sensibility when they are rapidly leaning their bodies toward me. As a human, I forge friendships with huggers; as a journalist, I’m often tasked with extracting information from them. That disconnect is the foundation of the interaction’s awkwardness for me. At the party, I had to make hundreds of quick-fire social calculations: Does this person expect a hug, and if so, where exactly do they want me to lay my incompetent hands on them? It was complicated by the fact that the space was both extremely crowded and featured an open bar. So everyone was a little looser with their physical displays, but we also didn’t have much space to extend our arms, which were saddled with books and drinks. There was a lot of I’m-going-to-just-lean-my-body-against-your-body-for-one-second going on, which actually seems like a fair compromise.

Of course, many of these people had read my piece, which meant that I was no longer free to bury the signs of my obvious discomfort into their shoulders until they released their grasp. I also had to talk about it, constantly. But it didn’t really resolve the confusion about whether we were ultimately going to put our bodies on each other’s bodies! Some people read the piece and approached me slowly with their palms up in surrender mode, while others announced their intentions to change my position with their superior technique. I appreciated that they made their intentions clear so I could brace for impact.

Some folks at that party later accused you of initiating hugs with them — claiming you made the first move, and that said move was to… HUG. Is that true? And, on a related note, what is it like being known as the anti-hugger?

Guilty as charged. I’m a conservative hugger, but I’m not totally anti-hug — that’s a misreading of the argument, which is that the unwieldy proliferation of the hug often results in a perfunctory display that feels emotionally and physically terrible. I will warmly open my arms for known huggers I like (if we’ve interacted enough to become attuned to each other’s hug styles, it helps a lot), and coldly offer them for known huggers I fear. Because there were many people I love there that night, and also champagne, I ended up in a lot of hugs that were not so bad. I got into a bit of a hugging groove, actually — as an awkward, oversensitive potential sociopath, it can be comforting to get to a place where the social script is well-defined, even if it brings little actual physical comfort. As for how it feels to be known as the anti-hugger: Not any worse than most hugs, tbh.

Lesson learned (if any)?

There are some people who are aggressively furthering the hug agenda (like those who terrorize public events with “FREE HUGS” signs), but a lot of people who offer a default hug are a lot like me — they’re just trying to contort their bodies into a position that will minimize awkwardness and communicate respect, which is hard to do when thrust into a social situation where people’s preferences and expectations are unclear. I empathize with them, at a safe distance.

Just one more thing.

I have a very close friend who is also on team Maybe Don’t Hug So Much. We live on opposite coasts, and whenever I see her, we’re just like, “sup,” because we know where we stand. When I said goodbye to her at the end of the evening, I could feel myself tilting into that telltale hugger position. Maybe I hugged so many people that night that my body didn’t know when to turn it off. She was like, “Oh my God, are you trying to hug me?” and I was like, “I don’t know!” and then I just kind of went for it. It was terrible, and I will never do it again.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.