Hugging may have health benefits (like lowering your chances of catching a cold), but you have to make sure the recipient is on board. No one is suggesting you run up and hug random strangers on National Hugging Day—or any other day—but even family and friends may be taken aback by spontaneous bursts of affection. It’s always a good idea to be sensitive. “We need to have extra precautions in this trauma-informed and #MeToo era,” says Howard Y. Liu, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. It’s not really new advice—people always should have been respectful and sensitive of the boundaries of others. However, more people are now (or should be) aware of hugging etiquette. Here’s some hugging advice from the experts.
Always ask before you hug
The founders of National Hugging Day (NHD) remind that “Reasonable care should be taken with those who are either uncomfortable with public affection or their reaction to a hug is unknown. In those situations, it is advised to ask first before hugging.” It’s also advisable to ask if you don’t customarily exchange hugs with a particular person, says Beverly B. Palmer, PhD professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills whose recent book is Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life. You don’t even need to frame it as a question. “It can be a statement, ‘Gee, I just really want to hug you right now’ and see how they respond,” she says. (Here are the 11 most heart-warming hugs of the last decade.)
No means no
As with any other type of physical contact, if someone refuses your offer of a hug, don’t push it—literally or figuratively. “The definition of sexual harassment is when someone makes a gesture towards, you say you don’t want it, and then it continues,” says Christine Nicholson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. Hugs and other physical touching can be further complicated by gaps between intention and interpretation. “Gender complicates it further since a hug can be interpreted as friendly, paternalistic, or a sexual advance,” adds Charles T. Hill, PhD, professor of psychology at Whittier College in Whittier, California. “Saying no,” is a life skill everyone should have.
Pay attention to context
Are you at a restaurant? At home? A professional conference? The appropriateness of hugging depends on the setting, says Dr. Palmer. And there are even professional restrictions in some cases. The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, for instance, states that social workers should not have physical contact with clients “when there is the possibility of psychological harm to the client.” If there’s a power difference involved (say a mentor and a trainee), it may be best to not even ask if you can hug, says Dr. Hill. (Here are ways to deal with a workplace bully.)
Consider a “hug alternative”
Bear hugs are just one way to express friendship, appreciation or love. Try a less forceful or intimidating show of affection. “There are brief hugs, side hugs, and near hugs when a hand is on a shoulder but one is not pulled close,” says Dr. Hill. Then there’s the old fallback: shaking hands. Dr. Liu says he often leaves things—especially in a professional setting with people of unequal status—with a handshake. “Five years ago you would go to a national conference and see a lot of hugging,” he says. “Hopefully we’re a little bit more informed.” Aiming for the most conservative option is never a bad idea. (Here’s what happens to your body when you get a hug.)
Be aware of cultural differences
“Expectations and comfort with physical affection differ across cultures,” says Dr. Liu. This can mean religious, ethnic, or national boundaries. A 2019 study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology of almost 9,000 people in 42 countries found that individuals in regions with higher temperatures seemed to be more comfortable with less space between themselves and a stranger. People in colder climes wanted more space. The findings were slightly different for social distance (acquaintance) and intimate distance (close person). People in places with warmer average climates preferred being farther away from intimate partners than people in colder areas. Presumably, these preferences would extend to hugging.
And individual differences
There are individual and family differences as well, says Dr. Hill: Some individuals and families who like hugging and others that do not. The same study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found differences in personal-space preferences by age and gender. Women tended to want more distance from strangers and acquaintances, as did older people. Trauma histories can also play a role, although obviously you don’t need to bring this up if someone approaches you. “I don’t think people need to bring up their complex trauma histories,” says Dr. Liu. “You can say you’re from more of a handshake family.”
Be sensitive to nonverbal cues
Nonverbal cues like body language or facial expression can help guide you when deciding whether to hug or not to hug. If a person is approaching with open arms for a hug, you could extend your hand for a simple shake. Asking whether or not you can hug someone gives you time to both receive and interpret a facial expression, for instance. “The recipient will probably give you a nonverbal some kind of facial expression,” says Dr. Palmer. “They’re unconsciously communicating to you that’s not ok with me.” (Here are body language tips for getting what you really want.)
Think about what hugging really means
Hugs are meant to communicate friendship and affection. Being respectful about physical contact doesn’t mean you have to lose that impulse. “Instead of focusing on the ‘hug’ aspect of National Hugging Day, you can think about what is underlying a hug—sharing caring and appreciation of others—and demonstrate that in a different way, says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, a senior psychologist with Northwell Health in Lake Success New York. Or try a kind word or (non-touching) gesture. (Here are 10 ways to be nicer to yourself too.)