Friday, 20 July 2012


Hugs come in all shapes and sizes. Unambiguously, an interpersonal statement of empathy and emotional support, the hug seems quite universal. I like hugs. But they do seem to vary in meaning. This is usually accepted without thought, since the meanings tend to be clear to us without having to think much about it, at least on an emotional level. I have mused on this a lot over recent weeks, since musing seems to be a calming passtime that soothes my addled and somewhat scrambled brain. I have come to no firm conclusions except to be hugged is, for me, a rather pleasurable experience. However some hugs are more enjoyable than others and this gives cause for a small meditation. Why do hugs vary in their capacity to provide enjoyment? It's a question that I have been thinking about a lot.

The variability of intention is something that has been made very apparent to me in the past few months. Since I came out of hospital, I have had more hugs offered to me (almost exclusively from ladies) than in the previous years of my life put together. It has been frankly wonderful if I am honest.
So, it would seem there are many variables in the mechanics of a hug, subtle variations of which denote the intention and attitude of the initiator.
The factors varied seem to be :
  •    directness/obliqueness of contact,
  •    proportion and height of contact
  •    duration.
At the more "distant" end, we have the side hug, much favoured by more religious and emotionally repressed types. I have not had any of these. This hug is where an arm is thrown around a person, ostensibly drawing them firmly but safely to the initiator. But the participants remain side-by-side. It appears to be designed to show some level of support or solidarity without the risky business of face-to-face intimacy. I think personally that this is a uncommitted kind of hug unless the giver is truly uncomfortable with interpersonal contact, such as someone with Apsergers or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for whom even this type of hug might be a significant and touching pushing of personal boundaries for the benefit of the recipient.

Then comes the demure leaning-in, cheek-to-cheek, right shoulder to right shoulder hug, usually short-lived and its end signaled by the (occasionally patronising) pat on the back or left shoulder. All other parts of the body, especially the hips, are held at a careful distance. This one tends to (strangely) be favoured by well-turned-out ladies of an ectomorphic disposition. It may often be accompanied by the insincerely intoned "Oh, you poor thing!" as might be cooed to a lame but smelly elderly dog, or an ailing aspedistra with a phosphorus deficiency. I am not fond of these types of hug and they tend to leave me with a feeling of isolation and discomfort, as if an icy blast of wind has blown across my neck from a briefly-opened door. There is a sense of being perhaps a mildly unsavoury character from whom a safe distance must be maintained. I often wonder at my own personal hygiene after such a hug and slink off somewhere quiet to have a serruptitious sniff of my shirt.

As a hug becomes more intimate, it tends to be more face to face. Of course this is effectively infinitely variable depending on the level of intimacy the initiator intends to show. Full front-to-front contact is usually reserved for people who know you well or who would like to. Obviously there is the issue of what to do with one's head in such situation. Being tall, this tends to be less of a problem for me, but when the initiator is of a similar or equal height, The positioning of the head and face can indicate one's comfort or discomfort with the situation. I favour the keeping upright  of my head and staring straight ahead. But when a degree of affection or sincerity is require I may rest my right cheek on the initiator's head. Of course, there is also that occasional embarrassing situation when heads clash. Depending on the force of impact, this can bring a hug abruptly to a close or even, as once happened to me, cause the breaking of a nose necessitating a trip to hospital for an X-ray.

Along with this reduced obliqueness, comes the other parameter of interest: degree of grind. This is essentially, how much of the body, from shoulders through boobs, to belly, hips and finally thighs, the initiator is prepared to, or would like to press against you. Or how much movement is introduced during the pressing together of parts.
Often, it is just briefly immobile shoulders with a mere hint of boob if things are to remain respectable. But sometimes these are enthusiastically pressed against one's chest (or belly or face depending on relative height difference).
Further suggestion can be made by the enthusiastic application of hips into the equation. Sometimes, a saucy grind is offered whicch can frankly ether repel you or make your day depending on the person modulating their movement. Often, one is left in no doubt as to the intention of the initiator, were propriety not required to be be observed. Usually, when one of these hugs happens, alcohol is involved.

Of course, I use the word "initiator" here to imply the person offering the hug. I tend not to suggest hugs but to have them offered to me. This is probably because I am English and a man and as a demographic, we still are a bit unsure about this rather continential approach to greeting or showing affection.

It can sometimes be that upon being inducted into a hug, the recipient (and I understand this is more common if he is male) can decide to change the terms of engagement, grabbing the kind lady and moving her not only more directly in front, but also forcefully applying pressure to increase the surface area in contact. This is often referred to by ladies of my acquaintance as "creepy". It can even extend to "gropey" (or by the younger generation as "a bit rapey!") when some rascal of a chap decides to take a handful or two that was not offered. This is, in my opinion, taking advantage and not playing by the rules. Fellows doing this should rightfully receive a slap across the chops by the lady whose honour was so impugned, or at least some level of quiet but firm protest like a vigorous and painful pinch of the spare flesh of the chap's "love handles".

Duration: well, it has been discovered by reputable science-types that the optimum length of time for a "social" hug is just over three seconds. Any more and one party usually starts to struggle. This becomes a kind of wrestling. It can be comical to behold unless you are the one trying to escape. Of course romantic hugs can last much longer, extending even into hours. This never happens after the first flush of love however, but only when the oxytocin and vasopresin are in full flush at the beginning of a relationship. Or occasionally when it is very very cold.

So, here we have it: a whole panoply of interpersonal signals from mild or insincere affection through to emotional support to true love, hints of lustful intention and sheer lechery.
But through all of these is the shared expression of humanity and empathy. I think the world would be a better place if there were more hugs of any of the above types and I shall henceforth be initiating more hugs. Oh, I shall be respectable about it as befits a fellow of my age, standing and circumstances, but what better way is there to say "I too am, as you are, human, and need love too. Here is some, offered to you to affirm your position in the world and in my life".
And how much happier we all will be!

1 comment:

Librarian said...

Initiating more hugs is certainly a good thing!
I don't think I have ever been "side-hugged", and I am glad to say that on only very, very few occasions have I felt uncomfortable in a hug, and even lesser times did the hug have a "groping" aspect to it (one that wasn't welcome or expected, anyway).
Among my friends and family, hugs are the normal way of greeting, but with friends I have not met in a long time and we are very happy to see each other again, a hug tends to be longer and firmer.
Hugs can be so comforting in troubled times, I find. And warm on a chilly morning!