The Psychology of Workplace Hugging: Modern-day Social Resource or an Awkward Interaction?

Are you a workplace hugger? Do you go around comforting people by giving pats on the back, hugging them, wiping tears away?  Do you hug everyone hello in the morning? Do you hug business colleagues at the beginning of a meeting?  Do you cheek kiss them goodbye at meeting’s end?  Does this all seem insane and uncomfortably touchy-feely to you?  Is a handshake about all you can muster?  Have you ever hugged it out a la Ari Gold in Entourage? Have you noticed that on the David Letterman Show or Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, when the guest comes out on to the stage, there are at times a few awkward moments where the guest is obviously contemplating whether to hug the host or just wave ‘Hi” to the audience. Even celebrities have a hard time figuring out workplace hugging protocols.


But hugging sure has gotten its share of media coverage recently. This week, a New York Times article painted Mayor Bloomberg as a NON-hugger: the tag line was that “Bloomberg chooses results over hugs as city rebounds.”  Bloomberg has been diligently visiting the Sandy ravaged areas in New York, but he does not stay long enough to soothe souls through hugs and kisses, or so was the gist of the NY Times article.  If it had been Bill Clinton we know he would have been hugging every single Tom, Dick, and Jane, and probably Jane’s internship-aged daughter too.  As it was, Obama’s visit to New York was covered by a local news channel under the headline of “Hugs and Hope.”  Does hugging someone signal a shared sense of hope and empathy?  Certainly, in these headlines, hugging is seen as not only a form of greeting, but also a way to let the world know that you are empathic and “real.”



I work in a non-profit. I am just going to state that upfront. Thus, there are all sorts of huggers, including tree huggers, baby squeezers and hug-at-every-emotional moment huggers.   It seems to me that the more the non-profit is about social justice, the more hugs they seem to dispense throughout the workday.  On my very first day at my non-profit workplace, I received no less than ten hugs.  That was a startling shock to the system. See, my last job had been at the Department of Justice where if you looked at someone even peripherally you could get sued for some kind of harassment.  There were about ten, yes ten, concurrent lawsuits with everyone suing each other for countless perceived infractions and harassments. Luckily, I never got sued for being a know-it-all but I think several people thought of doing such a thing. So, mind you, when I got hugged time after time at my new non-profit job I was aghast. What world had I entered? What were these people doing in my personal space?


I remember when I lived in Spain, I was slightly uncomfortable by the physical distance Spaniards maintained when talking to me. And by physical distance I mean that they were in my face by American standards. I wouldn’t be able to wipe my nose without swatting them away.  We do know that Europeans and South Americans have different standards for space and hugging.  For instance, The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School has found that French couples spend 3 times as much time touching when compared to Americans.  Whereas hugs may be seen as invasive in a corporate workplace, in the non-profit world a lack of a hug can appear to signal distaste or mistrust.


One of my friends, who has worked mostly at corporate-type environments, came to visit my workplace soon after I started. I did not have to chance to warn her about the hugging situation. As soon as she stepped through the front office door and was introduced to my colleagues and boss as my friend she was subjected to a series of hugs that seemed to knock her off balance somewhat. She had a somewhat awkward deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression throughout that visit and slightly nervous laughter.


I have now been eight years at this non-profit workplace and I still have not quite mastered THE HUG.  Some analysts would say that, in light of sexual harassment policies and law, any kind of intimate touching is a mistake and that you should avoid even reaching out to touch somebody’s shoulder as you’re walking by them. But what if you are in the situation of being called-out as culturally incompetent or insensitive if you do not hug someone?  Here is a prime example. Laughingly, a client from another non-profit complained to a government funder about the fact that when I saw this client I did not hug him hello but instead waved across the hotel lobby and asked him how he was doing.  Now, what would you consider the most ridiculous part of this situation: the fact that the client complained, the fact that the government official entertained that discussion for an hour, or that said official called me to discuss the situation. That’s several of your hard-earned tax contributions down the toilet.  What is even more ridiculous about this situation is that this particular client openly advertised to all in the field (or all that would listen to him for some reason) that he didn’t like me. Yet, he was offended by the fact that I didn’t hug him. Well, I apologize for not wanting to hug someone who was likely to put a knife in my back.


By nature, I am not a workplace hugger and I have been made a little gun-shy hugwise by the weird hugging complaints.  But, by being embedded in a community oriented non-profit organization I have become a “hugger” to a certain extent. Oddly, people have come up to me at community and conference events to tell me that they wanted to give me a hug because I am so sweet and can connect with people. Without batting an eye, I once replied “of course, I love hugs”.  Those colleagues within hearing distance had a good chuckle for several minutes.


In 2004, the Free Hugs Campaign was launched, which involved people giving hugs to random people on the street. While I was at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, there were huggers everywhere with signs inviting people to come up to them for a free hug. Considering how cold Viennese people had seemed thus far on that trip, I actually went and got my free hug. It made me giggle for hours and then I went on to join a protest group lamenting the state of AIDS funding.  The underlying premise of giving a hug to someone is to lift their spirits.  A recent research study found that adult depression is influenced significantly by poorer self- and other-images as well as by fewer parental interpersonal touches throughout childhood (Takeuchi, et al., 2010).  Hugging is no doubt a good thing in the home.  But it also seems to have additional meaning in the non-profit world, where people are not financially well-compensated but hugs are seen as a form of social resource.   Through workplace hugs, inter-personal relationships are personalized and perhaps people feel more part of a team.  By engaging each other on a more human level, engaging each other as real people it may diminish a sense of depersonalization that often occurs in non-profits or the healthcare fields (i.e nursing; HIV/AIDS serving organizations).   In that vein, perhaps New York City police force should instill a hugging campaign of its own.  For that matter, why not have the Wall Streeters and the Occupiers hug it out?  By having a workplace hugging culture, people may feel uplifted, productivity may subsequently increase and people may forget they are underpaid? Ok, that was my cynicism creeping in.


Despite my cynicism and my natural inclination to not be a workplace hugger, I have adjusted and learned to see the value in it. Nonetheless, I do have some hugging rules.  First, let me state I refuse to hug people that don’t like me.  You complain to a funder: so be it.  I am not going to hug it out either with someone I disagree with.  Second, I refuse to hug those slightly lecherous people in the field who get a kick of being in everyone’s personal space.  Third, when holding a business meeting that involves a group of individuals, I always greet those less familiar to me first with a handshake and then hug those individuals I have a hugging history with.  Fourth, I always try to think of how the person receiving the touch would perceive the hug.  If they seem to be extending their arm for a handshake-don’t hug them. Fifth, just because I hugged you today, it does not mean I will hug you tomorrow.  I do have to keep people on their toes.


As we near the end of the calendar year in which many festivities are celebrated there will be many a hug dispensed both in the personal realm and in the workplace.  Come the New Year you may be all hugged out. But just in case you are not, January 21 is National Hugging Day.  Don’t raise your expectations. I may or may not hug you in the workplace. But I will definitely reserve several big hugs for my baby boy.

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