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Unwanted Hugs

Some people are tone deaf to body language.

There is no mistaking the body language of a toddler who wants to be picked up and embraced. In any language to anyone of any age, the eager upturned face, the outstretched little arms, and the quivering muscles speak volumes, even if the child cannot yet voice her wants. Nor is it easy to miss the intent of a person who approaches you with an outstretched hand no matter what direction the palm is facing. Yet some people do manage to miss obvious body language cues.

Many years ago, when I was contemplating giving up my two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, I sat down to analyze the many reasons I enjoyed smoking. Nicotine habit aside, one of my reasons was providing a literal smokescreen. When I had a lit object in my hand and was exuding clouds of smoke, I was able to keep others at a comfortable distance.

When I came out West and encountered the new-to-me, huggy California style of greeting others (sometimes perfect strangers to whom one had just been introduced), I used to demur with “I’m a New Yorker.” I thought that was perfectly understandable shorthand for announcing my desire to keep some physical distance. After all, I had years of New York City subway experience behind me. That’s enough close contact with humanity to last a lifetime.

The San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s was a hotbed of encounter workshops and human potential growth experiences, and the customs there were often quite touchy-feely. If you didn’t hug the other group members during the experience, and often you did, people certainly had lots of hugs for everyone at the end of the group or workshop.

I enjoy hugging people for whom I feel a fondness, but no matter what intimacy-fostering experiences we had been through together, there were often individuals whom I just didn’t want to hug. I am very choosy about my hugs and my huggees. What to do?

I have tried extending a hand, smiling, and stepping back when a mad hugger descends on me. Do you know the type I refer to as mad huggers? They are promiscuous huggers who enfold to their bosoms anyone in their path. That “never met a person I didn’t like” kind of lover of humanity who feels self-righteously that even though I might express verbally or by my body language that I am just not into such intimate contact, s/he can dispel any objections by hugging them away anyway.

So I have tried the smile and extended hand along with the very specific expression of my feelings: “I’m just not a hugger, I’m afraid.” And what happens? I have gotten the smug response, “Surely that doesn’t apply to me,” and again, the absolute certainty that the person can hug away my defense.

I can certainly be rude if that is my intent, but in most cases of turning aside unwanted hugs, or trying to, that is not what I am aiming for. I just want to avoid being pressed against the chest of someone I have just met, or someone who is just not all that physically appealing.

Are these cases of insensitive men who are in the habit of ignoring what they don’t care to hear, especially from a woman? Not always. I have encountered women who do this too, but not as often.

So, reader, what say you? How have you successfully sidestepped this thorny social issue, if you have? If you are a habitual hugger, can you tell when a person doesn’t welcome your embrace before you find yourself hugging a stiff body to your chest? Tell me I’m not the only person with this dilemma.