Hugs and misses: the art of the full-contact greeting

By Amanda Dunn
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 20, 2012
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ON CHANNEL Nine’s hit singing show, The Voice, not everyone is a winner. But everyone gets a hug. Or a kiss and a hug. Or one of those manly hugs that begins with a 45-degree handclasp then moves in for a sharp slap on the back from one man to the other.

The affection flows from contestant to contestant, contestant to judge, and even judge to judge. In short, no one goes home empty-armed.

But even beyond the hot lights and heightened emotions of The Voice, it seems that, anecdotally at least, we are becoming more demonstrative with each other than ever before.

Steve Ellen, a psychiatrist at The Alfred hospital, talks about the kind of non-sexual contact that now has ”currency”, which he says has changed from a generation or two ago.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Dr Ellen says, the emphasis was on being independent and self-sufficient. But ”the currency now is to be open, warm, touching and respectful of other people’s feelings”.

Donna Leigh, chief executive of Suzan Johnston Training Organisation, has noticed it too. ”Kissing is on the increase,” she says. ”It’s everywhere.”

Even more recently, globalisation and the rise of social media – the latter of which can breed familiarity between people who have never met – has caused a new comfort with closeness, according to Melbourne University social scientist Lauren Rosewarne.

”With social media, I think we’re seeing insights into people’s personal lives that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. So we’re seeing our friends be more touchy-feely with their friends, and that’s giving us exposure to a new kind of norm, which dictates to us how we should show our closeness with friends and family.”

Dr Rosewarne also sees something of a performance in some of the kissing and hugging that occurs, particularly among the young.

”A lot of the kissing and hugging process is a way to hasten familiarity,” she says. ”But there are times when a kiss and a hug can be absolutely meaningless.”

Any display of affection comes with its risks and relies on us being able to read other people’s cues. It pays to be mindful of cultural differences, too.

In Europe, kissing hello and goodbye – the double or even triple-kiss varieties – is a standard greeting. But Australians who are not from a European background may well be wrong-footed by the double kiss.

In social settings, a handshake may seem a little stiff, while a hug might feel too familiar. And there is always the chance that the other person will stiffen and make it clear that the contact is unwelcome, creating a potentially awkward situation.

Even a simple kiss can be problematic: there can be a clash of glasses or noses or – most awkward of all – a miscue of direction that can end in an unintended lip-kiss.

Ms Leigh suggests you do not put your lips on the other person’s cheek: a kiss should just be a brushing of cheeks. ”It’s not hygienic to kiss someone and plant your lipstick all over them,” she says. Also, always go right cheek to right cheek to eliminate potential clashes.

Some people just don’t like to be touched. This might be because they are unsure how to interpret the display of affection, they have had a bad experience, or perhaps, Dr Rosewarne says, they just ”reserve that for an intimate space”.

In the workplace, touching becomes more problematic, particularly where there is a power imbalance between people. Body language and speech expert Michael Kelly says the easiest approach to greeting colleagues – even if you are friends outside work – is to stick with the handshake, which comes with its own set of rules: grasp firmly, pump twice, maintain eye contact. He advises women to offer their hands to men to avoid uncertainty on whether a handshake might be welcome.

As for touching colleagues – a sympathetic pat on the hand, for example – the experts again advise caution. ”You do have to pay attention to your effect on others,” Dr Ellen says.

Negotiating all of these rules and trying to read people’s body language, can be tricky, and most of us will get it wrong at some point. But physical contact can express a fondness that people may find difficult to put into words. ”It’s a very simple way to show someone how you feel about them,” Dr Rosewarne says, ”because you don’t have a good way to say how you feel.”