The First Hug

The first hug in a developing relationship is an interesting point in time because of what it means and what may or may not attend to it. I’m thinking of this because a few days ago I had a first hug that came very unexpectedly but, when it happened, was utterly natural, appropriate and nice. This was a person I’d been working with in a professional, academic setting for about a year. During this time I think…no, actually, I know…there were a number of bonding moments between us. There were times when she was uncertain or unclear about what she was doing and I helped her feel more confident or to obtain a sense of direction (which was the nature of my job and an expected part of our interactions). Meanwhile, I learned a lot from her about her area of research, and I was very positively impressed with her as a person. Yet these positive reactions that we’ve been having to each other were only vaguely acknowledged as our relationship developed.

This was clearly a case of getting to know someone and beginning to think “This is a person who could potentially be a friend. Too bad she lives in Saint Paul.”1 And as time goes by, the relationship becomes more comfortable. Then one day, you find yourself in a social rather than professional setting, and everyone’s had a little wine, and it’s time to go home, and suddenly there’s a goodbye hug as though there’s always been a goodbye hug. And you had never really previously wondered about the hug–if there was going to be one, if there should be one, if there should not be one. One minute there has not been one, the next minute there is one, and it is perfect.

Other first hugs are attended by a considerable degree of angst, or at least consideration. For example, I think of and compare my first hug with the following people: my mother-in-law (she’s a kisser-hugger), my sister-in-law (after our first hug, she said to me “Wow, you are an outstanding hugger. I don’t just say that about everybody!” which added significant additional angst to the prospect of the second hug) and my father-in-law and brother-in-law (right, like that’s ever going to happen).

I have a friend whom I’ve known for years and had never hugged, and this was such a totally huggable person, but we had known each other for so long without the hug ever happening that things had become uncomfortable. Such a delay is not healthy. Eventually we fixed that and now the hug is part of our normal greeting (we don’t see each other too often). This is an example of some anxiety attending the lead-up to the hug, but then it turns out that everything is just fine. Better than fine in fact.

Then there’s the first hug that probably shouldn’t have ever happened. The one that does not go so well. Did you ever reach into something…a sack, a refrigerator, a small muddy pond…expecting to grasp one thing (a can of tuna fish, the ketchup, a small fish) and ending up with something entirely different (a dead mouse, a wad of rotten lettuce, a wormy parasitic larva of some sort)? The hug that should never have happened can be like that.

A hug is a moment of closeness, of friendship or love. The persons engaged in the hug are taking a moment to hold each other, to let the other person hold them. It is an intimate and very, very warm moment. The hug that should not have been is different. The being held part is a looseness, a sinking into the other person’s arms a bit. That is replaced with a stiffness and resistance, a sort of rigor (as in mortis). The hold action on the other person’s part is transformed from a friendly and meaningful embrace to a clumsy stiff-armed awkwardness. If you were the one not expecting, not wanting, even trying to avoid the hug, it can be like getting jumped on by a big dog that should be better behaved but is not. If your hugee is the one not expecting, not ready for, not wanting the hug then it is like grasping the wet lettuce or the dead mouse, or like popping a bit of warm, salty, tasty popcorn in your mouth and crunching down on an unpopped kernel. Not so tasty after all.

Twice in the last couple of months I’ve had someone…a potential co-hugger…just come out and ask me whether I’m a hugger. That’s funny because I actually think of myself as a person who enjoys intimacy as part of friendship, and I am definitely a hugger. But this made me realize that I am actually somewhat choosy (and there is not a conflict between these two things). In fact, to one of these people, I said “No, not really, nope, that’s not really me,” and to the other person I said, “Of course I am. I’m a total hugger.”

Not surprisingly, hugging is a gendered activity. I have numerous female co-huggers and only a few male co-huggers. I probably have more male co-huggers than the average straight male (even after subtracting non-straight male co-huggers), but not many. There are two reasons that men don’t hug each other as often as women hug each other or as often as women and men hug, and they are both spelled with a “y.”

I have to tell you about one co-hugger of mine. This is a person I’ve only seen once in the last 20 years, but back in the day we were very close friends. I swear that if we were of opposite genders, we’d probably have gotten married. I’ll call my friend “K.” When we hugged, K–about half my body mass and skinny as rails–would take the wind out of me, literally. The first time that happened I actually let out an involuntary noise. After that I learned to expect the reverse Heimlich maneuver every time.

Hugging is political. Democrats hug each other way more often than Republicans. (Other than Michele Bachmann, who not merely hugs but…no, let’s not even talk about that, okay?) You could see this during the meet and greet following the the President’s addresses to the joint session of Congress. It used to be that hugging was ethnically determined as well. I grew up in an ethnically heterogeneous world in which hugging or non-hugging was one of the traits that distinguished different groups of people. But this effect has, I think, transformed over time as hugging has become a more standard part of our commonly held popular culture. There are age effects. Awkward teenagers may forgo hugging for a few years. Elder women are constantly hugging everybody. And so on. And all of these generalizations are only vague determinants of what actually happens, of course.

In fact, you never know when somebody is going to come at you with their arms spreading outwards and their chin tilting to one side to avoid crunching faces. And when they get their arms around you, you never know how long it is supposed to last. Or where exactly you are supposed to put your arms and hands. It can be hell.

My sister-in-law is right that I’m a good hugger. I have a secret. I do what K taught me, but much milder. The person has to know you are hugging them, and the hug should last a little longer than the usual perfunctory “hug” we see so often these days. And if you are short, I might kiss you on top of the head.

My brother-in-law and father-in-law are very tall. Lucky me.

  1. This is always an issue in the Twin Cities. Mixed friendships are difficult. Someday, maybe, people from Saint Paul and Minneapolis can just learn to live together. But for now, well, lets just leave it as…things can be difficult. []

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5 Responses to “The First Hug”

  1. April 29th, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    One of the ways I get around the awkwardness of hugging other men (those who may be afraid of catching “Teh Gay”) is to use a hand clasp to make sure that the chests never actually touch. It’s kind of a manly hug, used by manly men. Some still don’t really like it, but at least my Dad has gotten more comfortable with it…

  2. April 29th, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Greg Laden says:

    The hand clasp with the hardy pounding on the opposite shoulder blade region.

  3. April 30th, 2009 at 6:58 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Having grown up in a non-hugging family, I had to learn how in a support group. All kinds of folks came through the doors, and all kinds of hugs were shared, or occasionally refused. Some were polite, some supportive and nurturing, some needy and clingy. I brought hugging back to the family and my mother learned to love it. My dad is still extremely awkward but enthusiastic. OK, maybe I should just say willing.

    I think you missed the hug that the other person tries to turn into a grope session. Or is that just a girl thing? I quickly learned whom to avoid when hugging time rolled around. I’m also careful not to do it with coworkers: it’s just not that kind of environment.

    Some of the best hugs are from my granddaughter. I can instantly tell her mood, which for several years has often been sulky or angry, and lately has become warm and loving again. It measures her growth much better than any tape measure.

  4. April 30th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Greg Laden says:

    The grope session is an issue. I was trying to avoid the down side, but I suppose it must be mentioned.

    There is also the pickpocket hug, though it is very rare.

  5. May 6th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    wlpeak says:

    Democrats hug more than Republicans? How did you arrive at this conclusion?

    How about libertarians, socialists, etc.?

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