Milles Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Milles Studio/Shutterstock

It certainly feels good to hug someone you love, and based on research on the health benefits of touch (Gallace & Spence, 2010), it should also provide a boost to your immune system. Hugging, of course, takes place in many situations, from greetings and goodbyes to funeral condolences and congratulations to college grads.

We certainly hug a lot. But who decides when it’s appropriate or not? Have you ever reached over to hug a non-relative, casual acquaintance, or colleague only to feel that you overstepped the boundaries as you saw them pull away? In an atmosphere where many people receive training in how to avoid sexual harassment, would you like to hug someone but fear it will spark a complaint about you?

Clearly, we could use some guidelines to help us determine when to hug and when to shake hands, or whether to avoid any touching whatsoever. These seven empirically-based rules will help you avoid the embarrassment, or worse, from a poorly-timed or unwelcome hug.

  1. Try to gauge the other person’s signals.
    Some people automatically hug without giving it a second thought. If you’re an over-hugger, you need to pause before you lunge to test out the other person’s body language. If he or she is standing straight as a board and shows no signs of bending toward you, either let the other person initiate the hug, or if you must touch, hold out your hand.
     
  2. Decide who might like to hug, but would find your hug to be offensive.
    In a study of attitudes toward touch among cross-sex friendships, Miller et al. (2014) found that women who were not in a heterosexual relationship tended not to want to be hugged by men. You might seem to be trying to make a move on a person you’re considering hugging if she’s unattached. Age may also play a factor ...
     
  3. Figure out the best way to hug.
    A team of European researchers headed by Isac Sehlstedt (2016) found that older adults gave higher ratings to touch than did younger adults. They responded more affirmatively to such questions as “I am easily bothered if someone I do not know hugs me.” However, they did not seem to be more likely to initiate hugs, based on their response to the statement, “I usually seek physical contact with other people.” Older adults particularly seemed to like what’s called “CT touch” that is slow and gentle—some refer to CT as social/affective touch. It is most likely what you will feel when someone gives you a warm and gentle hug. If you’re going to hug someone, then, the chances are someone older will better receive your hug than someone younger, and it should be gentle (i.e., not a “bear hug”). However, don’t assume that just because someone is an older adult that they will welcome the hug, as cultural and other social factors might make that hug seem ill-timed.
     
  4. Look at what other people are doing in the situation.
    A graduation hug may be one that’s repeated 50 times by everyone going through the ceremony. Or you might be in receiving line at a wedding reception, funeral, or other highly-charged emotional event. If you’re the first person going through the line, then follow the first rule above. But if you’re in the middle of the pack, you should have plenty of data to help you know the right way to behave.
     
  5. Be careful when hugging someone at work.
    Given the growing concern about sexual harassment cases, it’s wise to stay away from hugging as a way to show you care about your colleagues. For the most part, you should err on the side of not hugging, even if you think it would be welcomed by someone you believe you know reasonably well. It’s best to leave hugging for special occasions such as when someone leaves the company or retires, but again, only if it seems acceptable in the context of your workplace.
     
  6. Know when a “safe haven” hug is called for.
    A hug may help someone who’s emotionally hurting, in which case it is much like the hug a parent would give a small child. The term “safe haven” refers to the ability of a hug to make someone feel cared for and understood. This hug may be longer and is best to offer to someone you know reasonably well.
     
  7. Be prepared to reciprocate a hug offered to you.
    Perhaps you’re not a huggy type, but others around you are. If you don’t hug back, you’ll be perceived as unfriendly and standoffish. If you’re truly bothered by hugging, are afraid of catching someone else’s germs, or the other person is sweaty or a little smelly, figure out a nice way to edge out of it. As they move in toward you, turn your body to the side, extend your hand for a shake or stiffen up a bit and try to avoid contact. If this happens repeatedly, you might say "As you might have noticed, I’m not much of a hugger.” They may appreciate that bit of honesty as much as an actual reciprocated hug.

Physical affection between people who care about each other is certainly a desirable and pleasant experience. With an appropriate degree of hugging, you’ll be able find fulfilling and reasonable ways to keep strong the bonds of intimacy and friendship.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference

Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246-259 

Miller, M. J., Denes, A., Diaz, B., & Ranjit, Y. (2014). Touch attitudes in cross‐sex friendships: We're just friends. Personal Relationships, 21(2), 309-323. doi:10.1111/pere.12033

Sehlstedt, I., Ignell, H., Backlund Wasling, H., Ackerley, R., Olausson, H., & Croy, I. (2016). Gentle touch perception across the lifespan. Psychology And Aging, 31(2), 176-184. doi:10.1037/pag0000074

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016