The Art of the Appropriate Hug



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, and that to some people it could make them feel as awkward as if you were to show them an adult video from or likewise sites, sexual harassment is also overviewed a little below. 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. FriendsHACH 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 membersHACH 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 colleaguesHACH 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 bossHACH 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.”

Miscellaneous Considerations:

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



    21 Comments on The Art of the Appropriate Hug

    1. J D Tay
      May 20, 2018 at 6:12 pm (4 years ago)

      I appreciate all of the questions and answers above but none of them swear my concern. When in social situations my husband hugs my attractive girlfriends by holding their lower waistline with his hands spread out nearly caressing their upper buttocks. More recently while leaving a gathering while walked to the door by the hostess who was slightly intoxicated he put his hand on the inside of her waist and caressed up and down from under her arm to the extreme lower waist (the 3rd time he has met her) for several minutes. I was walking behind them and the visual was clear. I believe when hugging a host or hostess on arrival or departure in what should be considered a platonic relationship that there should be no hands under the arms holding the waistline. The hugs should be up high and outter arms with a slight kiss on the cheek. I would love your feedback on the etiquette on these situations. Thank you!

    2. Kacey
      April 14, 2018 at 3:56 pm (4 years ago)

      What is an appropriate hug for the opposite sex when you are married? Should their be any lingering squeezing tightly frontal type hugs happening? Thanks.

      • jenniferdaku
        April 16, 2018 at 8:04 pm (4 years ago)

        I’m gonna go with no. Just a quick pat and then moving on.

    3. Robert Porter
      March 24, 2018 at 10:21 am (4 years ago)

      How long should a hug last between a married woman and someone other than her husband even if she knows him? I think it should be fairly quick hug, air kiss or quick kiss on the cheek and then move away. My wife does full on body hugs and kiss on the lips even though I have repeatedly ask her not too! She seems to get perverse pleasure out of doing this in front of me. Should I be looking for a new wife?

      • jenniferdaku
        March 25, 2018 at 9:03 am (4 years ago)

        Whether the hugs would personally bother me would depend on he particular circumstance. Notwithstanding, the REAL issue is that your wife continues the hugging and touching knowing that it bothers you and after you asked her to stop. That’s the real problem here that needs to be addressed between the two of you.

        • Robert Porter
          March 29, 2018 at 6:31 am (4 years ago)

          Thanks Jennifer
          I have addressed it! I’m leaving her to find another women who will show me the respect that I deserve and require! I never did this to my soon to be ex! No, I’m not a prude at all. In fact and total honesty, I’ve been with well over 1300 women trying to find the right one. I guess I didn’t see at least one of my soon to be ex’s flaws. The fact that she only cares about herself! I guess a biggy huh! Anyway back out on the circuit. I think I will try and find a nice South American women this time. Wish me luck!

    4. Helga Hurban
      May 31, 2017 at 5:35 pm (5 years ago)

      How do I politely refuse a hug when being introduced in a social setting? I much prefer a handshake and feel ambushed when someone presumes they can invade my space.

      • jenniferdaku
        June 2, 2017 at 9:18 am (5 years ago)

        That’s tough… I would put my hand out for a shake… they will get the hint.

    5. Ammelia
      June 3, 2016 at 2:18 pm (6 years ago)

      Only in America would you have to have a codification of appropriatness of touch or emotional expression. No wonder manicure salons are so popular…its the only place where people can be touched without having to worry about appropriatnes/. No where in Latin America, the Caribbean,or Europe, would people require a codification of touch…maybe in the MIddle East yes.

      • Robert Porter
        March 25, 2018 at 7:57 am (4 years ago)

        Oh, so you don’t care if your husband or boyfriend makes full body contact and kisses another women on the lips; and you also don’t care how long they hold that hug either! How sheik, how continental of you!

    6. Julie
      March 16, 2015 at 4:20 pm (7 years ago)

      I love your funny story. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve gone for the hug when the other person thinks we are air kissing! And wasn’t there a great scene in Friends once when someone when for a handshake when the other person hugged and they ended up grabbing their crotch!
      I have a lot of Spanish friends who do 3 cheek kisses each, to everyone everything – meeting and saying goodbye!
      You say in London it’s 2 kisses, but not always, it depends who it is more often than not! And then there is the “man hug, with back pat and release”,”high five”, “fist bump”….Honestly the whole thing is a minefield!

    7. Jennifer Faggion
      January 23, 2015 at 10:33 am (7 years ago)

      Where does the awkward wave fit into the spectrum? That’s my go-to move for most scenarios 🙂

      • jenniferdaku
        January 23, 2015 at 11:29 am (7 years ago)

        Good point. Also read: waving at someone you think you know, only to realize they were waving at the person standing behind you.

        • Jennifer Faggion
          January 27, 2015 at 2:29 pm (7 years ago)

          Standard operating procedure for me as well.

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