Sunday, March 20, 2011

Feeling the Love

An article in FT Magazine -  – got us thinking about how we greet one another—a handshake or bear hug.


There are still many things that amuse me about the USA even after 20 years here. One of them is the bear hug. Here in the mid-west you don’t gently kiss people on the cheek when you greet them, or shake hands if it’s guy-on-guy, you give them a big old bear hug. Sometimes there’s an accompanying kiss on the cheek as the hugger moves in for the full body envelopment, but often it’s just a hug.

If a woman wants to show that she really likes a person (in a platonic way) she’ll stop about ten feet away, raise both hands straight out in front at shoulder height, perhaps waggle her hands a little, and run in little steps to the target. Sometimes there’s a high pitched squeal or a drawn out “How are you?” Then both arms are flung around the other person’s neck. This happens every day at the school gate and these women see each other almost every day.

While people don’t hug you when they’re first introduced to you, they could well be hugging you by the end of that encounter. For example, if I was introduced to someone at a dinner party I’d shake their hand. By the end of the dinner however, particularly if we’d clicked, there would be a hug. It might not be as tight as a hug from a good friend, but a hug would still be in order.

The Brits that I know here all do it too, but only to Americans. When we Brits meet and greet each other, we revert back to leaning in and pecking once or twice on the cheeks. Minimal contact. And it’s quite a relief sometimes too!


My wife is the recipient of many a bear hug when we visit the States, even from people she just met.  Due to her being my wife, if a good friend of mine meets her, she is instantly awarded “good friend by proxy” status and given The Hug.  It’s not an issue or anything, just a cultural difference.

What I get, in addition to bear hugs from the ladies, is the manly ritual firm handshake with the left arm extended in a sort of half hug, ending with a pat on the back.  It’s second nature to me.

Living in Britain and having those experiences when we visit the States made it surprising that the article linked above classified Americans as repressed.  I guess, in comparison to the rest of the world, they are.  I just happened to land in the only country on earth that makes Americans appear unabashedly uninhibited by comparison.  Over here it is a handshake and a kiss on the cheek (actually, it’s a kiss in the air next to their cheek, unless they are a good friend).  I find this a bit tame.

This discussion, however, is limited to greetings and the article expands into other areas where, I would have to agree, the Americans come across as quite prudish, even compared to the Brits.  But other cultures leave us both far behind: in Finland, for instance, you might strip naked at a dinner party and hop in the sauna together.  So there are varying degrees of what we, as a culture, are comfortable with.

I think, for me anyway, the happy medium lies somewhere between a polite handshake and getting naked in the sauna.  A nice, firm bear hug perhaps.

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  1. Toni, I love your description of the preparation for a hug! It's a way of saying "I'm going to hug you, get ready!" so that the recipient doesn't get a surprise. You describe it so well. Made me laugh.

  2. This was hilarious! I just re-read it aloud to my husband. I love the description of the women running toward each other, screeching a greeting. You've got it nailed down! :-)

  3. I'm not really a hugger. I have space issues; but if there a choice between a hug or an air kiss, I'll take the hug any day.

  4. I like the hug, I have to say. I now scream and wiggle with the best of them. And I was a very reserved Brit, too, back in the day. I'll be in for a culture shock if I go back.

    A friend of mine worked for a time in Brazil, where it was usually for everyone to hug and kiss each other when the arrived at the office. Every day. This was an oil company too, so mainly men!

  5. Great post. This is definitely something I noticed when I lived there.
    I'm a 'kiss both cheeks' person, but......I love hugs too. And on occasion, I can scream as loud as the best of them. :-)

  6. I think it differs regionally in the States. I grew up about 20 miles outside NYC. On Long Island, when we would say goodbye to our friends' parents, we would kiss them goodbye. Flash-forward to college in the Midwest and my two roommates/flatmates from the south--one from deep central Florida, the other from Virginia--requested that I not kiss their parents goodbye as their parents said it made them uncomfortable!

    And myself? I'm not a hugger. Hate being hugged! Much prefer the lean-in-two-kisses, European style.

  7. The huge hug definitely seems to be bigger in the mid-west. I don't remember it being quite so pervasive in Texas when I lived there.

  8. This is my personal opinion but I think a lot of Americans (where I live) feel more comfortable with a hug than with a peck on the cheek. They think kissing actually feels more intimate. I live in the Mid-Atlantic states so I guess my experience falls more in line with Krista's comment.

  9. Texas here. No kissing. In fact, I have a friend at home who looks like a friend here in London. Whenever we are home I always lean in for the double kiss. It is now our running joke and we always do the double kiss. I had trouble doing the kiss when we first moved to London, not because Texans don't kiss, but because we had lived in Geneva before, where 3 and sometimes 4 kisses were the norm. My husband also has a Nigerian friend and Canadian friend, both serial expats, from his UN days. They have this loud man love ritual whenever they meet. Makes their wives laugh.
    (And for once I'm not Mary the Contrary around here.)

  10. I much prefer a hug to a kiss. Hugs used to be more prevalent in Britain (at least where I lived) but kisses have chased them out. I put up with kissing as it's the socially acceptable thing to do, but I'd rather have a hug. Unless it's from someone smelly.

  11. Hi there nice to meet you, came through Expat Mum. I've been here in US for eight years and have to say unless you're really good friend there's no hugging or kissing. Must be Northern Californians. I think people in England were more effusive, but now I'll have to really start taking notice. Also noticed here people much more traditional in their taste - especially homes!- than in London. Great post, really got me thinking...and watching...

  12. Midwest girl here. Where I grew up in Iowa, we didn't hug or kiss people unless they were family or very close friends. Iowans are friendly, but tend to be more reserved. At least the ones I have grown up around. I have never hugged a perfect stranger. I have been hugged by strangers, but that was usually when I lived in the Mid-Atlantic Southern states.

  13. I agree with those who note that hugging is a regional thing in the U.S. Also, it is a fairly recent change -- people shook hands and didn't hug a generation ago. Unless it was your grandma or like that.

    A memory that still makes me laugh inwardly is of a TV news clip I saw during the queen's last visit to the U.S., in which an excited bubbly lady, ecstatic at meeting the queen, forewent the proffered hand and forgot the curtsy part and grabbed the royal personage in an American bear-hug. I swear this is true. Now, I am an American but I know that one doesn't touch the queen uninvited, much less grab her. To her credit, Her Majesty didn't pull back or even look shocked, and the woman wasn't thrashed by security guys, but the queen's fleeting expression was priceless.

    I don't think there was an attempt at two little kisses, either.

  14. Ugh, I'm not a hugger or kisser but growing up in the Midwest hugging was only for family or close friends. Nowadays it seems that if you meet an acquaintance at a party, a hug at the end of the night is required.

    I do envy the European women who can do the air kisses so eloquently. Saw it in Paris and the other day outside of my work where two French women met up. But it's priceless to watch American women try-there's always a split second of hesitation that makes it awkward.

  15. Toni, I love your description of the little run-to-hug scenario. In Texas, this is usually accompanied with a little exaggerated scream and an exclamation of "Oh my gaaaaawwwwwd" or perhaps, "Haw ahr yew?"



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