Up until recently, I thought I understood hugging and how to do it. I had my technique — loose enough that I could adapt it to different social situations, but personalised enough to make the individual feel like it was a hug designed for only them — and I had acquired enough hugging knowledge over the years to know what is and is not appropriate arm/head positioning (for example, never grab someone’s bum mid-hug, even if it’s just a joke! Unless you have the rare opportunity to hug a super-model, professional female beach-volleyball player or other such owner of bum-genius — in which case the penalty will probably be worth it and you’d be a fool not to take the chance).
So I was happy. I was at peace with my hugs and I knew what to do if a short adult lunged forth and hugged me around the mid-riff and I couldn’t bend down without seeming insulting (do what you would do if a bear confronts you in the woods: just stand still and wait for it to finish). They were never going to change the world, but at the same time, they weren’t offending anyone — as far as I was aware — and that was the main thing. Of all the things I would hate to be known as, it’s a hug offender (there are other things which are much worse, of course, but let us not go into those now).
Then, recently, something changed. From out of nowhere, rules appeared and I was lost. It didn’t make me unhappy, but it did open my eyes to a whole new world of hugging enlightenment that I’d never before considered.
It began with one simple and innocent well-meaning hug. A hug for a female friend. It was the end of the night at the pub and this was one of those hugs which was somewhere between casual and meaningful. A nice friendly hug that should have been simple and without politics and complications. I say casual, because this was a female friend I saw relatively frequently — so it wasn’t as if there was enormous pressure resting on this hug going right; it could afford to be a little rough around the edges and unfinished in a way that hugs can’t be when someone is emigrating, or just going away for a really long time . I say meaningful because I only believe in meaningful hugs. I can’t just hug for the sake of it — more to the point I won’t. Doing so doesn’t just feel wrong and fake…I also find it extremely uncomfortable — emotionally debilitating, even. Hugging for the sake of it simply baffles me.
It’s sad, but whenever I’m walking through town and pass a group of teenage girls, all hugging for the sake of it and not knowing any better, I often feel a pang of jealousy. I am not saying I want to invade their space and hug them — this wouldn’t be appropriate, and bearded men have been arrested and soiled with a bad reputation for much less! — but I am saying that it’d be nice, just once, to understand what casual hugging is like. Hugging without so much preparation attached.
Here is how the hug in question went:
1: I stepped towards my friend at medium speed — about as fast as you might to stroke a cow’s head, which is not something you would ever catch me doing, but that’s beside the point — and embraced our hug as best as I knew/could (there was not that much time to prepare for the hug, and this also threw me a bit). At this point, I was to be shown-up royally. Her hands/arms did their thing with worrying ease…it was instantly clear that she had been practicing, and this was despite her natural advantage of being smaller than me. Some people have all the luck!
2: The hug tightened. You know how it is, I know how it is — hugs have been tightening and making people feel loved, wanted and special for centuries. Personally, I think tightened is a very good word for this important second-stage. It sums it up nicely. The conclusion of stage 1’s initial embrace, stage 2 involves a delicate blend of finesse where you sense how long to hug for and compromise with the other person. Which I was about to ruin completely when…
3: …My big stupid man-arm swung downwards upon my friend’s back and my big stupid man-hand slapped her not once, but twice quite hard. Not hard enough that strangers would feel the need to intervene, but hard enough that both I and my friend knew that I had over-stepped some unwritten hug-boundary. When the release came, it came with laughter, as my female friend quite rightly pointed out that I had given her a classic man-hug! The speed, the approach, the slap, the not-quite-leaning-forward-enough, making it seem like this hug was the very last place I wanted to be. A hug which made it seem as though I was winding a baby.
A MAN HUG. Had I learned nothing?
Clearly, somewhere along the way I’d got supremely mixed-up. I’d forgotten that men and women had different hugs, and I’d gone and done something which could not be un-done. Now I would carry that label with me forever…
Are we still friends? Yes, of course we are. Where I live, you don’t stop being friends with someone because they man-hug you in a way which lacks grace and finesse. What you do do, though, is thank that person. And, if you are the one who receives a dodgy hug, then don’t hold back. It is your duty to bring this to the attention of the man at once. There’s no point hiding it or being kind for the sake of the hugger’s ego. Because us men need to know what we’re doing wrong when we hug, otherwise, how can we be expected to correct it?! (Note: this does apply to heavy-handed women too, or just women who suffer from my hugging issues. I imagine women who do the shot-put also have real trouble not hurting people when they hug.)