To Hug or Not To Hug: Tips on Cultural Greetings

hugs2To borrow a catch phrase from a popular insurance commercial, hugs come at you fast. With family, they’re predictable. With friends, pro forma. But in a business setting, especially first-time greetings in other countries or within multicultural events, the hug often earns an A for awkward, right up there with the high-five and the fist-bump.

Whether you’re a happy hugger or hug averse in your personal life, one doesn’t have to be a meeting planner for long to learn that reaction to an ill-considered hug upon introduction can range from uncomfortable to outright offensive. In fact, the hug is so loaded with potential mixed messages that some planners relegate this natural human exchange to after-hours-only status.

Which is a damn shame, to be honest. After all, what do we spend our business lives doing if not fostering connections with our colleagues, clients and event co-creators? To randomly remove this spontaneous, genuine display of friendship, camaraderie, caring, consolation and cordiality from our tool kit would seem to make us less effective, less engaging – and frankly, less ourselves.

How to navigate the touchy give-and-take of hugs? Here are a few suggestions:

Respect their space: Despite how you may perceive it in your personal life, the hug is not as universal as the handshake. In fact, some people consider it a violation of their personal space, especially in a business setting.

Be considerate of culture: Asian cultures prefer the traditional bow or a simple head nod and smile to any form of physical greeting. It’s part of the societal value they place on shyness and respect for physical space. While Arabic cultures allow for handshakes and even cheek kisses between male colleagues, any physical contact between opposite sexes, including a handshake. is considered obscene. In fact, outside of North America, you’re far more likely to encounter the alternate-cheek kiss than a hug as an acceptable form of greeting.

Then there’s hygiene: Many Asian cultures perceive hugging as dirty at best and a dangerous, unnecessary exchange of germs at worst. They’re still not crazy about the modern handshake for the same reasons.

Hug appropriately: Part of the awkward uncertainty of proffering a hug is due to our individual sense of when hugs are appropriate. While young Americans today embrace hugging (so to speak) as an all-purpose greeting, thanks in no small part to the rise of the selfie, their elders may tend to reserve the public gesture for specific purposes: weddings, funerals, consoling or comforting someone in need, or celebrating a sports victory. In a business setting? When in doubt, don’t reach out.

The pre-hug: Not sure if your hug will be 100-percent welcomed by a new acquaintance? You can subtly test the waters by offering both hands in greeting Hugs3or grasping their extended palm with yours and touching their forearm or upper arm with your free hand. If they’re huggers themselves, they’ll likely pull you in. If not, you’ve avoided a faux pas.

Don’t stop hugging: For your own sake, as well as the sake of those within your professional and personal orbit, please keep a hug at the ready. The world needs more hugs!

Photo credits:

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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