I grew up in a culture that touches a lot – the Deep South. When I moved up here, I became very aware that people did not touch as much as I was used to. In social gatherings, when hugging was appropriate in one part of the country to express the heartfelt expression of caring, it produced an awkward feeling from someone who clearly did not want to be hugged. I found myself invading the personal space of people I cared about.
It was the subtle body language of a person not returning the physical embrace, denying a fleeting expression of intimacy. At some point, I learned to resist offering this social interaction in developing relationships. I heard from my wee small voice inside that people were whispering behind my back, “Stay away from Lenora; she’s a hugger.”
I could visualize potential friends placing their crossed fingers in front of their faces as they gazed at me, fending me off as if I were a vampire.
It has never really made sense to me that southerners have a tendency to be people who accept touch more willingly than those further from the equator. This touch, often in the form of hugging, is unencumbered with any meaning other than part of social interaction that offers no more than the immediacy of human contact. If for no other reason than momentary warmth, it seems logical that sharing body heat and perhaps insulation from the frigid temperatures would encourage hugging in the northern areas and discourage it with the southern population.
Setting bodily warmth aside for a moment, I want to add a note about chemistry. The simple act of touch stimulates a chemical reaction in both the toucher and the touchee. Hormones that make us feel good course through both touch participant’s bodies and brains. Yet another reason for even a heartfelt handshake if one is hug-challenged.
I often hear the argument that when we took religion out of the American school system, that is when violence began. Around the time that our government looked upon this decision to free children from religious persecution in government-funded institutions, we also adopted the “no touch policy” between students and staff. This code of ethics was adopted in order to discourage inappropriate touch. Being touched by someone who has questionable intentions probably negates the production of “feel-good” hormones.
I do not remember feeling religiously persecuted in my public school experience, but I was being raised in both a Christian evangelical family and community at the time. I did not really know there was any other way to believe until I sat next to a Jewish boy in my 10th-grade English class. I learned a lot more than 10th grade English that year.
There are good ways to hug and not so good ways to hug. I have been on the giving and the receiving end of both so I have a lifetime of experience. The first thing to do if you are interested in increasing your hugging quotient is to in some way ask permission to enter into someone’s personal space. I usually do this by saying, “How ’bout a hug?”
I have had people tell me they are not huggers and I file that away in my memory banks to restrain myself from offering again, but to be accepting in the future if they change their minds. Most people are accepting of my offered hugs.
So once you have offered to give a hug and it has been accepted, then the question is: Where do you put your arms to initiate the embrace? Here is where the etiquette of the dance of the hug comes in. Sometimes you just jostle around until you figure it out and that is totally acceptable. A friend told me that when you hug someone with both arms over the shoulders, forcing both arms of the other around your middle, it suggests a difference in power, possibly creating an awkward feeling.
When hugs are structured in more of an equal embrace, the physicality puts both hearts in closer proximity with no power struggle. Placing one arm over the other’s shoulder and the other arm under the arm fosters an embrace that brings the hearts in close proximity. I tend to put my right arm over the shoulder of my hugging partner, but I am right-handed and I don’t know if that part of etiquette has been established at this point in history.
While I am no hugging expert, what generally makes the process a complete experience for me is the mutuality of expression. However, if hugging is not something that works for you, then handshakes can offer a similar reaction in your body.
Now I hear that there is a new trend, since hands carry microscopic organisms that compromise our immune systems. Our culture has invented the alternative to the handshake – a fist or elbow “bump,” which is supposed to cut down on the spread of disease. I think it is too early to tell whether that brief encounter produces enough hormones to make a difference. To me, it is like eating fast food while speeding down the highway, rather than sharing a home-cooked meal with my family sitting at the kitchen table.
I have not found a definitive number of hugs that meet the minimum daily requirements. Recently, a friend of mine who works for the school system told me that when the children he is in charge of give him a hug, he has been instructed to not return the hug but just not react to the embrace.
While I intend to remember to ask permission first, sometimes I have that senior moment and forget the formality of protocol. It has already been a cold winter and it is my goal to gather as many hugs as possible. So if you are not a hugger, if you see me you might want to go in the opposite direction because I don’t run so fast in this weather.
Lenora Trussell, RN, is an end-of-life tour guide. She is available for presentations, workshops, and as a travel planner for that pesky end-of-life journey we are all destined to take. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.