I recently had a humiliating hugging encounter at a Christmas party that left me sweating when it was over. While engaged in conversation with the hostess, I spotted a young woman who my peripheral vision conned me into believing was the hostess’s sister, whom I’ve met several times. After my conversation with the hostess was over, I went in to hug the “sister” and realized, once it was too late, that it wasn’t the “sister,” and rather a girl I briefly met at the hostess’s baby shower a few months back and exchanged- maybe- two sentences with. She probably thought I was a lunatic and wondered why I was hugging her- she may not have even remembered me from the shower and figured I was just crazy and awkward. She politely proceeded with the hug, which was the one-armed-pat-on-the-back-no-frontal-contact-haphazard-hug and I desperately tried to play off the situation and pretend that hugging her was normal and intentional.
Is hugging generally awkward? Not for me, because I love hugging. However, I occasionally forget that some people are finicky about not wanting weird people to touch them. Like me. To prevent future snafus, I contacted Myka Meier, an old college friend who founded and directs her own international etiquette company, Beaumont Etiquette.
According to Myka, the key to determining how you should greet someone depends on the formality of your relationship. That being said, there are a few general etiquette rules to help the greeting process become [slightly] easier to manage:
HACH: Social Code to Hugging (rated by formality level, with 4 being most formal occasion)
Handshake – Right hand to right hand (4)
Air Kiss – Right cheek to right cheek, but lips never actually touch the other person’s skin (avoid the lipstick smudge!) (3)
Cheek Kiss – Right cheek to right cheek, however you may actually kiss lips to cheek (2)
Hug – Full embrace (most intimate…not for everyone) (1)
1. Social acquaintances (i.e. someone you have met a handful of times, but wouldn’t necessarily consider a friend). HACH LEVEL RATING 4/3 “When meeting an acquaintance for the first time, I would recommend shaking hands. After the initial meeting, for men, I typically advise they continue to shake hands with other men and give an air kiss to women. After a woman initially meets someone, an air kiss to either a man or woman is an elegant yet informal way to show recognition. If a woman puts out her hand to a social acquaintance after meeting them previously, it’s perceived that she does not recognize them (which is offensive) or does not care to be more than acquaintances (which is doubly offensive). If you felt a mutual (key word) connection (no matter the sex) or share close friends, after the first meeting a hug may feel most comfortable and is fully appropriate.”
2. Friends – HACH LEVEL RATING 2/1 “A handshake might be perceived as cold and unfriendly to a person who you consider a friend. Therefore, a hug or cheek kiss is typically most appropriate. When greeting both friends and family, some prefer to give a “pat hug” or the “shake hug” which is a combination of a pat on the back and hug or handshake and hug…which show mutual affection while not being too intimate. All are appropriate, depending on comfort level.”
3. Family members – HACH LEVEL RATING 1 “Hugs (and in some families, kisses) are considered the most common form of greeting family. That being said, determining whether to kiss may depend on the formality of the family situation or relationships.” [Note that is strictly the author’s personal opinion: if you are related to someone and opt to kiss them as a greeting, you definitely need to avoid this regardless of your gender, race, and culture].
4. Professional colleagues – HACH LEVEL RATING 4/3 “Hugging at work is not recommended. If done, especially to someone of the opposite sex or between superiors and subordinates, it can cause many issues. I would advise to always stay formal and professional by greeting with a handshake. Pending the industry you work in (and if you know a colleague extremely well) and feel it would be awkward to shake hands, an air kiss may be more appropriate.”
5. The boss – HACH LEVEL RATING 4 “Generally speaking, you should remain respectful and professional by shaking hands. That being said, as a superior rule, always follow the lead of the person more senior or powerful. If your boss attempts to hug you, it would be awkward to put out your hand.”
6. Your subordinate (i.e- your assistant). HACH LEVEL RATING 4 “No matter the sex of the subordinate, stay professional. Hugging subordinates can cause employees to undermine rank and therefore often respect, can cause the relationship to lose professionalism, and even be seen as sexual harassment.”
Is it okay to hug some people and shake hands with others when greeting a group? “Yes. If there are two people you’ve met before and two you have not, I would still recommend shaking hands upon first meeting.”
Is it okay to hug a client? “Treat the client the same as your boss. Always be respectful and professional, yet follow their lead.”
Do the rules differ depending on the situation (ie- holiday party or running into them at a concert/ purely social function)? “The rules always stay the same. If you bump into your boss at a concert, there are many ways to make the greeting more casual while still maintaining appropriate measures. For instance, you can show warmth by smiling and verbalizing pleasure to see them “Hello XX, It’s so lovely to bump into you out of the office”… It will show you’re not in your normal professional bubble while still remaining in line with your position at work.”
Is there any person who is always off limits to hug? “Yes. Royalty.”
Caution: “When traveling, make sure you know the hugging/kissing customs in country you’re going to… i.e. London is two cheek kisses (one on each side) and Switzerland is three kisses: right, left, right; and in some countries the religion prohibits you from hugging.”
Myka Meier is the Founder and Director of Beaumont Etiquette, a distinguished and modern consultancy that offers courses in British, Continental European, and American etiquette to adults and youth. She is accepting private and corporate bookings in Florida between March 23 and March 29, 2015. For more information, please contact Myka at firstname.lastname@example.org.