When it comes to getting dressed in the morning, men have it easy because they keep things simple: Put on a suit. They keep it similarly simple on the question of hugging or shaking hands at work: Shake hands, always. No muss, no fuss. Ladies, we cannot rule the world until we stop hugging at work.
Shane Snow, cofounder of the “storytelling platform” Contently, has written a brief blog post for Medium about the supreme awkwardness of the workplace hug, especially when it involves a man and a woman.
When he bumps into a male acquaintance, Snow writes, it’s obvious they’re going to shake hands. “I even shake my dad’s hand,” he writes. But:
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. Maybe I have something in my teeth. Maybe I should pull the fire alarm, so I can get out of here.
First of all, Shane, it makes me cringe to hear people refer to women as “females.” So stop doing that.
Second of all, I want to dismiss this hug-vs.-handshake thing by saying it should obviously be handshakes always and forever in a work context. I hate the work hug! But the truth is that there is something slightly uncomfortable about shaking hands with someone you’ve met more than a few times. It seems fine when men do it, but I always feel a bit cold doing it myself.
So Snow’s problem is legit, and I can think of two ways of addressing it:
1. Everyone needs to get comfortable with hugging at work.
2. Women need to fully embrace the handshake.
Neither option will be comfortable, but I vote for option #2. Shaking hands is more professional, it’s a more clearly understood gesture, and it’s an easier move. Unlike hugging, you don’t have to decide if you’ll lean to the left or the right, use one arm or two, embrace fully or lean awkwardly at the waist. Sure, there are slight variations in handshakes, but it’s 101-level body language stuff compared to the Advanced Senior Seminar that is hugging.
I am not one of those anti-hug crusaders who wants to eliminate touch from all human interactions. I often hug my friends hello and goodbye, I hug my parents. In my junior-high days, the members of my church youth group used to bunch together in something called a “grug” — group hug, yuk yuk — and I never hesitated to squeeze on in. Hugging is great!
The anti-hugging movement is strong in some quarters. In Maryland this spring, one school district banned parents from hugging any child not their own. A principal in New Jersey declared his school a “no hugging school” last year. These hug bans aren’t about awkwardness, but they do emphasize the point that hugging is an intimate touch. Shouldn’t that make us question its place in the office?
And sentiments against workplace hugging seem to be growing, too. Last year, in an NBC article subtitled “How a workplace hug can go awry,” one professor described an excruciatingly awkward hug with the president of the university where he worked:
“It was a long moment for me because halfway in, I realized 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.”
So 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.