To Hug, or Not?

by Joellyn Ferguson and Paul Mendel

Hugging is a Touchy Topic: Two Views on Whether Hugging Crosses the Professional Line

Joellyn’s Perspective

“Should you hug your clients?” That’s the question that came up as Paul and I were having coffee recently. We live in the South where hugs between friends and associates are not uncommon. Does that make hugging appropriate? Where’s the line? What’s the risk when a hugger goes too far?

I confess I’ve been known to hug a client occasionally. I’ve also been hugged, sometimes when I didn’t expect it. Hugs can be wonderful…and awkward.

My career spans startups to the Fortune 500, and I can say from experience that hugs are more common in small business than in the boardroom.

In my time working at corporate giants like UPS, I don’t recall a single hug on company time. Meetings were strictly “by the book” and certainly didn’t start by hugging everyone in the room!

There might have been a hug or two between friends when things weren’t going well at home or work, but that was about it. Corporate America, in my experience, was pretty much a hug-free zone.

Fast forward a few years and now I’m an independent consultant. I work with startups, small business owners and mid-market executives. I find that clients and associates often greet me with a hug, especially if we haven’t seen each other in a while.

Who Hugs?

You might think the issue of hugging splits along gender lines. I disagree. Although the women I know hug more consistently than men, males do hug.

When a man hugs me, it’s not in a creepy, come-on kind of way. I wouldn’t tolerate that. The friendly hug seems to say, “I like you more than a handshake,” and “It’s wonderful to see you again.

I don’t mind that, and I don’t find it offensive. I take it for what it is: a warm and welcoming gesture.

These huggers are usually people I’ve worked with for quite a while. Our relationship is strictly business. We know each other well, share a mutual respect, and even a fondness that is affirmed by the closeness of a hug.

What’s So Good About Hugs?

Recent studies have shown that hugs are good for us. Scientific American reported on hugging research from Carnegie Mellon which “indicates that feeling connected to others, especially through physical touch, protects us from stress-induced sickness.”

Hugs, apparently, can help us ward off infections like the common cold and give us a better sense of well-being.

Hugging releases the chemical oxytocin, which promotes feelings of contentment while reducing stress and anxiety. Josh Richardson writes about the benefits of hugging on Richardson cites research from the University of California showing that oxytocin, which plays a big role in mother-child bonding childbirth, also makes men more affectionate, facilitating relationships and social affinity.

The oxytocin produced by hugging “promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding,” according to DePauw University psychologist Matt Hertenstein, who says it “lays the biological foundation and structure for connecting to other people.”

Knowing this, one might conclude that a hug-friendly workplace would benefit from lower absenteeism and stronger bonds between employees. Could that lead to greater efficiency, productivity or even innovation? Maybe.

Should I Stop Hugging?

Personally, I don’t worry much about my hugging habit. I don’t hug everyone, and when I do hug someone, it’s mutual. When hugs happen I’m usually outside the office, meeting someone over coffee or lunch, or attending a conference or networking event where things are a little more casual.

These hugs are an unspoken language. They say things like, “I’m glad to see you,” “It’s all going to be ok,” “You’re doing great,” or “I wish you well.”

On the flip side, there’s no point in an unwelcome hug. It could damage a strong relationship, so why risk it?

I don’t ask, “Mind if I give you a hug?” because the action arises as a shared impulse born from affection. If you think you need permission to hug, you already know the answer is “No.”

That’s where I see the line.

In the right time and place a natural, authentic hug inspired by trust is a good thing. A forced or awkward hug isn’t.

I appreciate an occasional hug, and I see no reason to quit. I’ll keep giving and receiving them when it seems appropriate, and never when it doesn’t.

That’s my opinion, although I have a feeling that Paul’s may be a little different.

Hold the Hug...or Not?

Paul’s Point of View

A Man’s Perspective – What If a Client Hugs You?

For quite some time, this topic has really been clinging to me. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because I have experienced hug inflation. But now is the time to finally get my “arms around” this issue.

I remember my first business hug like it was yesterday. So awkward. The embrace occurred at the start of a meeting with one of my clients, an employee of a national company that I represent in office lease negotiations. After she greeted me with an enthusiastic hug, an unwelcome blush glazed my face. As I tried to suppress the redness, the warmer my face became. We took our seats and Susan asked if I had been to the beach. Great! Now she notices my sunburn which will magically disappear in a minute.

The meeting, like all the others with Susan, was a success. But now it is time to say good-bye. What do I do? Shake hands? Wave and say “See you later?” Instigate a hug? Let her lead? I chose the latter. She reached out her arms and hugged me while saying, “Thanks for all you do for me and the company.” Finally, I was free and my second blush quickly became a faded memory.

With bi-weekly meetings, the hugs continued and I knew I had to come to grips with Susan, the sudden huggy bear. I never instigated the embraces. And I never will. For she is the client, and a female, and I am the provider of professional expertise to her company, and a male.

What If a Newly Found Colleague Hugs You?

We all have experienced the networking meetings and business programs where you engage several people, create some rapport, and exchange cards. Inevitably, at least one person sends a LinkedIn invite followed with a “Let’s grab a coffee sometime,” invitation.

At these coffee meetings, some women instigate hugs. They do not occur when you greet each other, but at the end of the meeting. After exchanges about in-depth business experience and ideas to help each other grow our business, the discussion migrates to more personal topics. A sampling is: Where are you from? Your college? Your hobbies? What do you do for fun? Normally, the conversation flows effortlessly. As you begin to connect with this new “friend,” barriers fall and our true selves are unveiled and placed on full display.

Let the hugging begin?

Perhaps. Once the coffee is over I find that women will often instigate a hug as we leave the table. And if not then, it happens the next time I see them. But unlike in a client relationship, I sometimes find myself the hug instigator when I run into them again.

We All Know “Love Can Hurt.” But Can a Hug Hurt?

I have been to hug and back, and it can be occasionally uncomfortable. Sometimes a hug will cause you to unconsciously lower your guard. Another female client frequently gave me welcome hugs, and I unwittingly became a little too casual, softening my professional edge. But I am wiser now. Again, as a male, I follow her lead as she is the client. Bottom line, stay in your business lane.

With co-workers, hugs can be misinterpreted. Never assume that the hug is something more than a hug. Consider the hug as a greeting substitute for a hand shake. And when you are hugged, reciprocate with the exact or less intensity than the hugger. Never raise the hugging stakes or hug back in a different way.

After the Hug…

So why all this hugging?

If you are being hugged by a client, consider yourself fortunate. You are receiving a huge compliment.

Here’s why.

Let’s go back to Susan. Why did she become a hug greeter?

I believe our relationship evolved over time based on the fact that I always over-delivered and went above and beyond the typical level of service. She could count on me, and that made her work life easier. Eventually, our business partnership blended into a business/personal dynamic once we began sharing our interests, recaps of our weekends, insights into our families, and sharing funny stories.

Although we maintained professional boundaries, an underlying friendship developed, thus creating a ripe atmosphere for hugging rather than maintaining the traditional, stodgy handshakes. Susan’s hugs were expressing appreciation not only for me as the commercial real estate broker professional, but as Paul Mendel, the person.

I believe that Susan was signaling that even though business is business, we could both relax in meetings realizing we are technically teammates. This confirmed that I reached the pinnacle of a client relationship of trust, and confidence, and ultimately being perceived as a true partner. With this perspective, I learned to appreciate her hugs. I no longer blush.

As for colleagues, I believe the hugs result from both males and females opening themselves up to vulnerability. When trying to help the other in business, pass on leads, and provide introductions, you begin to earn trust and sincerity.

When you begin to learn more about each other personally, the more engaging each of you become. This promotes the feeling that you are approachable and a level of authenticity is born, ultimately creating a comfortable and trusting relationship. In this environment, males will also instigate hugs expressing appreciation for the other person, communicating that a handshake is just too stuffy and formal when the relationship is really more “business comfortable.”

The hug is a sign that you have impacted a relationship in a most positive way. In today’s impersonal world of email, voicemail, Twitter, Facebook, texting, and LinkedIn, we can be ensnared in a virtual world with superficial relationships. Let’s all get out there more, meet people face to face, and truly help them. Create real, meaningful relationships. Then, whether a client or a colleague relationship, embrace and accept the hug.

What Do You Think?

Are you a hugger? Anti-Hug? Why? Share your viewpoint in the comments below.

About the Authors

paul_mendelPaul Mendel, CPM, Senior Vice President of Office Leasing at Richard Bowers & Co in Atlanta, Georgia is a consultative commercial real estate professional, providing guidance for company’s future real estate needs as well as representation in their real estate transactions.

Paul has authored articles on commercial real estate published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle and IREM’s Journal of Property Management.

Email Paul | 404-787-7967 | LinkedIn |Twitter:@leasingoffice

Joellyn Ferguson, CEO of the Claravon Group, helps passionate entrepreneurs build thriving businesses that fuel an amazing life.

Author of Beyond the Launch: The Practical Guide to Building a Business that Thrives, Joellyn speaks around the world and is regularly cited in the media for her views on leadership and growth.

©2015-2023, Paul Mendel and Joellyn Ferguson.

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