Bitter and Better: Caution! Please Do Not Touch

Greta Kooy, Columnist 

I used to love hugs. I’d hug everyone, my mom and dad, my sister, all the boys I had crushes on and every dog I came in contact with. Hugs from friends and loved ones, even people I didn’t know all that well, made me feel warm and happy, and I embraced them when they were offered up. Some of those sentiments still ring true, but these days I’m much less touchy-feely and don’t really welcome hugs like I once did.  

When I’m now faced with the open arms of a hugger, someone I’m not entirely comfortable with in that way, I tense up and tend to feel ashamed that I’m not as emotionally receptive. It’s nothing personal, I’m just not comfortable with it.  

Ok, sometimes it’s personal.  

Without calling anyone specific out, there are definitely people in my life who overstep my personal boundaries. And it’s not necessarily their fault, maybe I just give off a vibe that says “I need a hug.” At the same time, you’d think that they’d be able to “read a room”. It’s like being on an empty bus, and then the one other person who gets on decides to sit right next to you. I’m not trying to be an asshole, but why?  

Hugs are interesting. They’re intimate gestures capable of expressing emotion without words and can convey feelings of safety and closeness. On the other hand, they’ve become a normal, casual greeting that people don’t really think twice about. For some, that kind of closeness doesn’t even cross their minds as unusual. For others, like myself, it’s a fleeting, compulsory moment of awkwardness that never seems to end. 

“A hug has great positive significance most of the time, although in some situations may be considered more of a social requirement, than a natural and free behavior,” writes researchers Lena M. Forsell and Jan A. Åström, authors of Meanings of Hugging. And that’s a shame. Hugs certainly shouldn’t feel like a requirement, although it’s true for me that they often do. 

A friend of mine recently told me about her first time away from home — she was 12 and went to Switzerland to visit family. She was greeted by her cousin’s male teenage friend with a kiss on each cheek — something that was slightly mortifying for her pre-teen sensibilities. In her circles, a kiss on the cheek was still spin-the-bottle-worthy, and she freaked out as he leaned in. 15 years later she hasn’t lived it down and is reminded to this day, she said, of her social awkwardness by her cousin.  

In my friend’s case, she was met with a social gesture that was natural to everyone but her. In countries like Switzerland, France, Turkey and Italy a kiss on the cheek is somewhat customary. In Japan, you’d bow and in Saudi Arabia, you’d touch noses. In Canada, it’s usually a handshake, but in less formal situations it can be the hug that comes out on top. In these situations, rather than awkwardly squirm away or straight up decline a hug (because that would be weird, right?), I tend to lean a shoulder in and stick my neck far enough out that it gives the illusion of an actual hug. It’s always weird.  

Curious, I read up on why someone may be opposed to being hugged. The main conclusions I came across were I wasn’t hugged enough as a child or was hugged too much, I’m an introvert or I have social anxieties and low self-esteem. Not entirely shocking, but interesting. 

I’d like to argue that despite there being “reasons” for why I don’t like being hugged, it could just be, plain and simple, that I don’t know you well enough and I don’t want you to touch me. End of story. That includes the all-too-familiar offenders of the “I’m a hugger” and “Where’s my hug?”. Not wanting to be hugged shouldn’t be seen as a pathology, we all just have varying levels of intimacy and the physical act of hugging has different meanings for different people.  

I’m not trying to come off as entirely reluctant to affection, I simply just don’t like to be hugged. If you’re not a family member, close friend or the guy I like to get my kisses from, then a wave and a smile is really all I’m looking for. And if you’re one of those “I’m a hugger” types, then it is with an honest heart that I have to say, “Sorry, I’m not”.

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