Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Confessions of a Hugger

For a thousand different reasons, I’ve been removed from the banquet schmooze circuit for quite some time. I recently attended an awards reception for a local women’s organization and was instantly glad that I’d changed my mind about bailing at the last minute. I had a chance to reconnect with past colleagues, introduce myself to future program partners and hug a long-lost mentor or two.

I’m back! I thought to myself. Time to re-insert myself into these worlds.

One of the faces I hadn’t seen in a few years belonged to a woman who runs a mentoring program for up-and-coming community organizers. I can’t say I know her particularly well, like we hadn’t “done lunch” or coffee or cocktails together, but we once had earnest ambitions of working together and it was good to see her after such a long time.

Our paths crossed, literally, as I was leaving the wine bar and she was moving toward the ballroom foyer. As we acknowledged and approached one another, I stepped in to greet her with a hug.

Big mistake.

As I cupped the back of her arms and leaned in to lightly brush our cheeks (the standard Social Hug for Professionals), I realized I was literally pulling her toward me. Her shoulders were stiff as planks and she waited a delayed moment to return a reluctant one-two back pat (the standard Stop Touching Me Hug for All Occasions)

With permission, I’m definitely the touchy-feely hugger-of-strangers type, but I’m not the brand of warm-and-fuzzy who assaults unwitting victims with my overflow of affection.

“I’m a hugger,” I typically warn, “is that okay?” I keep my distance, with one arm outstretched so the potential hug partner has the option of accepting my personal contact or just shaking my hand.

This time, unfortunately, it wasn’t until I’d already broken the barrier of her personal space that I realized I hadn’t afforded her the hand shake option. Pulling away, I felt her chest release a tiny, captured gasp of breath and noted a melting panic in her eyes. Only the outline of a frozen smile remained. I felt pretty badly.

Check that: I didn’t just feel badly, I felt a little creepy. Not delinquent staring-through-your-skin creepy, but more like the creepy great-aunt with too much hair pomade, too much volume, too much perfume, and too much eagerness to hug, pinch and smear bright lipstick on your cheek. Neither one of us mean any harm, but that doesn’t get the cherry bomb lip gloss from your forehead or the frozen smile from this colleague's face.

Returning to my table, I started to wonder why I’d garnered such a guarded reaction at all. Was I mistaken in thinking she liked me in the first place? Had I inadvertently done or said something to offend her or one of her colleagues over the past two years? Was I emitting an end-of-day funk? Did she find public displays and the people who commit them inappropriate? Was she a hardcore feminist stereotype who abhorred “soft” business women? Was she a wounded individual with profound intimacy issues?

Or maybe…

just maybe…

She didn’t like to hug people.

I’ll be honest, the last consideration didn’t occur to me for a few days. In an unrelated conversation with a close friend from college, part of the story she was telling me included the statement, “…and I don’t do hugs too much, anyway …”


With that, I chastised myself for searching out some brand of broken-ness to assign to my colleague. Who doesn’t like a safe, well-intended hug, I'd decided? It’s our nature, I know, to view our own outlooks and traditions and systems as premiere, if not “normal.” Of course, this is where judgment works itself into our lives. That night, I'd sipped on my wine trying to figure out what must be “wrong” for her not to want to hug me.

The nerve.

Of us all. I imagine it’s these same self-defined metrics that guide supervisors to mistakenly measure leadership in decibels rather than decision-making; for educators to assess students’ stability based on picket fences or neatly-packed lunches rather than even temperaments or openness; for lovers to calculate longevity on compliments paid rather than commitments kept. True, we’re inclined to see the world only with the eyes we’ve been given. Still, there are other panoramas to embrace and I appreciate being reminded of that.

Otherwise, there might be a poster hanging in your local post office about a Serial Hugger skulking through a neighborhood near you.