Italians have a code. So do Greeks, Arabs, the French and the Cambodians.
There, when you meet people, or say goodbye to them, you do it in a particular way. In some cultures, men kiss each other on the cheek; in others, you slap one another on the back. The Maori rub noses. But there’s a convention, an accepted way of doing things, and everyone is familiar with them.

150x600_conversationBut what do we do in South Africa? We have awkward hugs. That moment when it comes to saying goodbye is the one I dread whenever I’m at a social gathering.

It’s especially bad when you’re in a group with people you know well and people you’ve just met. So you’ll hug your friend when you leave, and the new person stands there with a polite smile and… well, what do you do? Every individual has their own personal boundaries. Some are huggers, some are not. Some are mouth kissers – the horror – while some prefer the vague, catch-all wave, but it’s difficult to tell upfront and it can lead to all sorts of horr ibly awkward encounters as you try to match their hugging style. Even sex is less fraught with angst than the hug issue.

It’s especially traumatic if you grew up in a non-hugging family, as I did. Affection was expressed in stilted, waspish ways; we’ll say “lots of love” to each other, but never “I love you.” To this day my brothers cannot bring themselves to embrace me with enthusiasm. It’s just too… weird. When I arrived at high school I discovered, to my horror, that hugging was the standard method of both greeting and parting ways.

I was forced to hug people I barely knew. It was a sort of immersion therapy for the Haphephobe. In my efforts to catalogue the many ways in which it is possible to embarrass oneself in a social setting, I have developed a list of awkward hugs. It’s probably not comprehensive – there may well be others – but these are the types I have compiled from my own experience and from consulting with others.

1. The half hug: one arm – usually the left – hugs, the other remains at the side. As mentioned above, this is the type of hug that generally presents itself when there is uncertainty as to whether or not to hug, but a sense of duty prevails and you end up hedging your bets. The half hug is the classic symptom of hug anxiety. People have told me that they live by the half hug.

2. The no pressure hug: this looks like a hug, but isn’t. Arms are placed around the other party, generally somebody one knows well, but no pressure is applied. The no pressure hug annoys me no end. If you’re going to hug and you’re friends or blood relatives, be committed to the hug. No excuses.

3. A variation of the no pressure hug is the one-sided hug, the you-like-me-more-than-I-like-you hug. A male friend describes this as “the hug that you get from a woman you’re besotted with who just wants to be friends… one hug, two readings.” Being either the hugger or the huggee in this situation is very tense. Similar to the one-sided hug is the stick hug, where the other person tenses up because they don’t want or like physical contact.

4. The slightly icky enthusiast: this is a hug between a man and a woman in which the man hugs just a leetle too firmly and a leetle too long, primarily for the purpose of feeling the woman’s boobs and/or backside.

5. Related to the enthusiast is the hold-and-kiss: when somebody grabs you and kisses you on the lips before you’ve had a chance to turn the other cheek.

6. The totally non-homoerotic back slap/pat hug: often witnessed after sports matches and on stages during awards ceremonies. The slap is the more extreme version of the pat and conveys greater feeling; rugby players seem to use it a lot. In contrast, there’s something vaguely condescending about the back pat. When a woman pats a man’s back during the hug, he knows he is forever marooned in the Friend Zone.

7. The Christian side-hug: aside from being a useful way to avoid front-on contact for persons of any religion, this is a huge global cultural phenomenon. Look it up on YouTube, and become the 1,600,320th person to watch the video.

8. The risky hug: this involves a frisson of forbidden sexual tension between hugger and huggee; as a result, the hug lasts for a much shorter length of time than both parties would like it to, but are mutually aware that anything longer would be… asking for trouble.

9. Finally, my personal favourite, the stand-back-and-hope-nobody-attempts-anything-non-hug: keep a wide enough distance between you and the other person in order to avoid the question of a hug coming up altogether.

What sort of hugger am I you ask? A flexible one, I suppose. I try to match the hugging style of others rather than impose my own. If I am to set the tone – and assuming I like the other person enough to violate my personal space for them – then I believe in the good old-fashioned sort of hug. That means two arms and enough pressure to indicate commitment to the embrace. None of this one-armed, half-arsed pat on the back nonsense. If you’re going to hug somebody, then hug them properly. The only way to tackle awkwardness, after all, is with confidence. Here endeth the lecture.

By Sarah Britten
Published by Playboy South Africa May 2012