Is the Hug the New Handshake?

Rubio_and_Crist_huggingI’ve been noticing a trend lately: the business hug. At first I thought it was just an anomaly when a colleague, also a friend, hugged me at the beginning of an on-campus committee meeting. We were friends, and she asked permission first: “Can I give you a hug?” So of course I said, “Yes.” And it was nice to have some human contact at the beginning of a meeting. There’s some evidence to suggest that the “stress-buffering social support” of a hug can make one less susceptible to the common cold; hugs from loved ones trigger the release of oxytocin, which makes us feel happier. But hugs between coworkers?

I recently co-led an entrepreneurial artist workshop at The Heard Museum with a friend who is an artist and a colleague. I socialize with him regularly, so a hug as a greeting didn’t seem odd, and there were only a couple of people in the room. Enter the museum’s community engagement director whom I had only met once before: hugs all around. Throughout the day, I tried to remain neutral, neither putting out my hand for a handshake (as is my usual MO) nor opening my arms for a brief business-like embrace and sure enough, people, even people I had never met before, would approach me in “hug stance” – body slightly turned (the business hug is not full frontal) and arms slightly open, one higher than the other. Invited into a hug, it would be rude to refuse, right?

Last month, I had a one-on-one meeting with one of my university’s associate VP’s. We Funerary_stele_of_Thrasea_and_Euandria_Antikensammlung_Berlin_01had met briefly in large groups, but this was our first one-on-one. We ate an informal lunch (which we had each brought from home) over a conference table. At the end of the meeting, my colleague stood and rather than shaking my hand, said, “I feel like we should hug; let’s hug.” I felt a wee bit awkward, but hugged her anyway, since she invited me to. I survived. I doubt that I would have assented had this been a male colleague, and doubt that a male colleague would have approached me in this way without a third person in the room. I also doubt this exchange would have happened ten years ago.

My observation is that this trend may be generational; my hugging colleagues tend to be in their 30s (I am not). When I entered the workforce, there were many times when I would be the only woman in the room; hugging was most definitely uncommon.

Perhaps if we all hugged more, raising our oxytocin levels and triggering a dopamine response, we could less stressful, more productive meetings. But, as I would when working with a community of which I am not a member, when it comes to a hug, I won’t presume anything and instead participate only when invited in.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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