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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
To hug or not to hug, that is the question, and not knowing the answer could lead to anything from momentary embarrassment to on-the-job trouble.
A few years ago, friends introduced me to a woman as a prospective date and, in the two meetings we had before she decided to return to an earlier relationship, we never quite resolved the hugging issue.
We did that awkward, half-handshake, half-hug thing that is even more common between men and which I dubbed a "hugshake."
And before anyone asks, I was the shaker and not the hugger and no, I don't think our greeting confusion had anything to do with her final decision. (It was probably just my looks.)
I move in a lot of different circles, which may be another way of saying I'm not getting anywhere, but greeting taboos and traditions vary. Some of them involve people who don't know each other very well; some involve people who know each other but are thrown together through circumstances that make it unclear how effusive their greetings should be.
A Buddhist group with which I sometimes meet is made up of people from a variety of walks of life, some of whom hug and some of whom shake. Sometimes we just bow, which I have always found safest.
Lay Buddhists don't have any prohibitions about touching, but most Buddhist monks I have met eschew physical contact, although the first I ever met took my proffered hand to spare me embarrassment and then later, politely, explained that it was unusual.
Much of my time is spent in the company of folk musicians and their fans, and we, as a bunch, are very huggy without regard to gender, except for one guy who is sort of on the country-western side who tends toward hugshakes. With the C&W folks, intra-gender hugging is fine, but the guys get a little embarrassed about it.
Hugging and ceremonial cheek-kissing are big with most of my European friends and family members, and my grandchildren are always obviously conflicted when I fail to turn the proper cheek. Frankly, however, I think my appearance scares them during the yearly get-togethers we have in Amsterdam, so they don't mind shaking hands. Actually, they used to be most comfortable hiding behind their mother's skirts, but that got difficult as they reached adolescence and got taller than she.
My wife's large Irish family is not composed of big huggers, at least not when I am around, and the few remaining members of my family aren't, either. We never had too much practice because of the wording of the restraining orders. Okay, that's a little exaggeration, but only a little. Still, when we did hug, it was more like we were patting each other down for weapons rather than expressing affection.
So it was already complicated before the problems of political correctness and real and perceived sexual harassment came along.
Good rule of thumb, don't touch anyone you work with unless it is part of the job or can't be helped.
The late Suzy Hayes and I worked together for years and were close friends and once laughed about our lack of physical contact. We shook hands when we met. I placed my hand on her shoulder when she cried at learning that a close friend and co-worker was dying, and we hugged the last time we saw each other before she died of cancer.
Our affection was in no way diminished, and it made for a perfectly comfortable work environment.
That is the way it probably should be in an office where people work in close quarters and professional ambitions and frustrations can lead to real or perceived harassment. Neck rubs used to be a big thing in the news biz, especially in the days that we had to whale away at the keyboards of Teletype machines, which could be a physically as well as intellectually exhausting process. These days I would give one if asked, but never offer or, God forbid, begin one without being asked.
In some ways it is a little sad that things are that way, but it also makes it much easier for everyone's intentions and boundaries to be clear and unquestioned.
In a mixed group at a recent party I kept trying to keep the greeting protocols straight but slipped once or twice to the mutual discomfort of all involved.
But I was forgiven.
Either that, or the paperwork hasn't reached me yet.