Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Is it okay to hug at work?

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It's awkward when a hug isn't returned.Photo / Thinkstock
It's awkward when a hug isn't returned.Photo / Thinkstock

As a man, is it weird to hug a female colleague or acquaintance? Can it be equally awkward - and overly formal - to shake her hand? For your everyday office worker, how is 'touch' navigated? What do women consider normal, and what makes them silently judge you as a maladroit semi-oaf with a problem reading social cues?

These are the issues. Or at least, these are the issues for tech journalist Shane Snow, whose article Hug vs. Handshake: Navigating salutations as an (attempted) non-creepy dude has sparked online discussion around hugging at work. Snow, in his (frankly pretty endearing) piece, posted at Medium.com, says:

With females, I feel like I'm trapped between two walls of a deep-space garbage compactor. On the first meeting, we shake hands. Easy. But the next time we cross paths? Is a handshake now too formal (especially if we got along well in the first meeting)?

Will a hug be awkward? What if the answer to both is "yes"?! Maybe I am taking too long to react to her "hello" and am starting to look like a robot.

Maybe my mental hug-or-handshake calculation is manifesting in a frightening way on my face.

He continues: The more I think about it, the more I spiral counter-clockwise down the toilet of anxiety.

So, is it the end the workplace hug? Should it be, to avoid momentary awkwardness? Opinion is divided. "Ladies, we cannot rule the world until we stop hugging at work," considers Ruth Graham of Grindstone, "...if no one really likes the workplace hug, there's only one thing to do: We women need to man up and start shaking hands."

But surely a hug is preferable to the sort of handshake that's so limp you have to suppress a blood-curdling scream at the mere shock of it. While I can sympathise with Snow, I don't see why women should have to curtail behaviour that comes naturally to them. Simply because the corporate sphere, moulded by alpha male social codes, hasn't given it the official workplace stamp.

Of course, there are unspoken social chasms that exist in the space between work and play. They exist for a reason: not wearing your "comfy home clothes" at work, for example, so your co-workers aren't carried away by waves of nausea at the sight of you. Or not sneaking a hot chip off your boss's plate, because otherwise what is up and what is down?

Sometimes though, those chasms can make everyone feel a little bit like wooden wind-up work people. You spend so much time with these people called colleagues, but you have to be a different version of you. And you probably don't know them from a bar of soap, even after all these years - they're just a piece of your office world.

Maybe that's why people go so berserk all over each other at Christmas parties: it's like when you see your teacher in the supermarket as a child and it just doesn't make any sense, because that's your teacher. She only exists inside the classroom. Add a few drinks and hormones, and the novelty suddenly morphs into embarrassing one night stands, or sentences from workers' mouths you can never un-hear.

But I digress. My point was supposed to be: maybe the encouragement of workplace hugging is what we need in the corporate environment to lessen the wooden-worker effect.

Think about it. If it there was ever a national poll, because you HAD to either shake hands or hug your colleague every single time you saw them - that was the rules - which would you pick? Personally I can't imagine shaking hands with someone I know already, again and again. I'd feel like an amnesiac robot.

Hugging's been in the news a bit of late: Scott Van Duzer, the pizza shop guy who lifted President Obama up into the air with his hug, is an advocate. (You can't see Obama's face in that photo, but he's grinning beatifically. That's what he does.)

And an NBC story last year - Awkward! How a workplace hug can go awry - describes professor James Lee's anguish as he got it totally, irrevocably wrong:

It was a long moment for me because halfway in, I realised what was about to happen. At that point, however, my body had already hit his outstretched arm that was expecting a handshake, and I knew that I couldn't call it off. I completed the awkward, inappropriate embrace.

Such was Lee's shame, he "...found the nearest exit and made his escape".

Finally, in Maryland in the US a group of neurotic parents who hate joy got together to restrict their children's exposure to hugs, party invitations and cupcakes. In the name of I'm not sure what.

When it comes to workplace ambiguity, solutions are out there. The answer, maybe, if you really can't deal with the "will they, won't they" moment before a hug (and I concede, hugging someone who stands straight like a soldier while you embrace them like a goon can inspire cold waves of mortification) is just to step backwards, instead. Continue until your back is against the nearest wall, then simply raise a hand and wave. Mouth the word, 'Hi'. No one will think you're weird, I promise.

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