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Social Hugging

By Chicago-Sun Times – 03/19/2001 – 12:00am

Let’s face it. Social hugging is like tipping and venereal disease. They’re important topics, but also subjects we, as a society, are woefully uninformed about. Even worse, it seems taboo to inquire about them. It’s time, then, to lift the veil of secrecy and tell the truth about proper social greeting.

You are out to lunch, and run into your college roommate and his wife. And they’re with her best friend. You must greet each of them properly, but how?

It’s probably going to be hugs for the first two, anyway. When you’re deciding whether or not to hug,the important thing to bear in mind is how well you know the person. “Hugs are more appropriate for old friends, and not people you met at Happy Hour last Tuesday,” says Lesley Carlin, half of the Etiquette Grrls, an Internet manners advice website. “”They are for friends, for family and people who just look like they could use a hug.” Adds her partner, Honore Ervin: “You can’t set some calendar date and say, ‘A week from tomorrow, we can start hugging.’ You just have to get a sense for how well you know that other person.”

Let’s say it’s a business lunch, and you sit down with that client who has been sending business your way for the last three years. What then?

In business, the rules change. Familiarity doesn’t really matter. Hugging someone you’re working with is generally bad news. In fact, it’s best to keep your hands, and the other person’s, in front of you at all times. According to Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival, Inc. and the author of Etiquette For Dummies and Business Etiquette For Dummies: “Hugs and kisses are usually inappropriate in any business environment. That includes patting on the back or putting your arm around someone.” And if that business acquaintance doesn’t know the rules, and goes in for the hug, don’t step back because, says Fox, “that can be pretty offensive. Just go along with it. They’ll get the message the behavior is wrong from the limp hug you give.”

By the way, if you ever end up as President of the United States, it’s also best to simply go for the handshake, at least when the news cameras are rolling. You don’t know how many times stations will run the slow-motion tape of you embracing a woman in a beret.

Then, there’s the dreaded social kiss, which used to be the exclusive province of aunts with moustaches and aging Hollywood starlets, but now seems to be spreading everywhere.

According to Peggy Post, author of the 16th edition of her great-grandmother-in-law’s book, Emily Post’s Etiquette, seems a bit concerned that social kissing has become “almost a universal greeting.” At least when reserved strictly for those close to you, though, she approves of it as a method for greeting.

“The social kiss is a charming way to greet family and friends, except for the double-cheek air kiss, which is quite irritating,” adds Ervin. “And you shouldn’t do it to random people. That’s a good way to get decked.” The best advice here is to do what you’re comfortable with. There’s no law that says you have to lay a social kiss when greeting anyone, and if you see one coming at you, just make sure to follow these basic rules. “Try to kiss on the right cheek. Always aim to the right,” says Post. “That provides a sense oforder, and helps you avoid smacking heads.”

So you go in for the social hug but the other person is coming at you, poised for the social kiss. Your afternoon suddenly takes a turn for the uncomfortable when you end up kissing each other on the ear or the back of the hair. Because the ways of the hug and kiss are so mysterious, don’t worry when these accidents happen.

Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to acknowledge it right away. Otherwise, you and your acquaintance will spend your time together feeling like complete social losers. “Keep a sense of humor handy when you do something like accidentally kiss the other person on the lips,” says Post. “You can use this as an ice-breaker. Just make fun of the situation and laugh it off. People worry about getting things perfect, but life isn’t perfect.”

Perhaps you’re not the touchy-feely type. Or you’re a germ-ophobe. Either way, the idea of a social hug or kiss is creepy.

A simple nod or wave seems weird, so there’s only one alternative. The handshake. “Don’t feel bad if that’s what you choose to do,” says Ervin. “Nobody is ever offended by a handshake.” In fact, if you aren’t comfortable with hugging and kissing, use your hand like a weapon. “The best thing to do is extend your right arm as quickly and stiffly as possible.

Initiate the handshake,” explains Post. In other words, strike before the enemy gets into full hug or kiss position. We live in a global village, mingling constantly with people from other cultures. And other greeting customs.

It’s generally no surprise when you meet someone from another land. Either you’re in their country, and better not be surprised to learn they have different customs, or they are introduced to you as foreigners. So, you have to do a little studying. Take a few minutes to learn whether it’s the Brazilians or the Italians who kiss cheeks three times, and how natives of India and Thailand bow. And for god’s sake, be prepared for the Japanese. “Most Asian countries, especially the Japanese, disapprove of public displays of affection, so no hugging or kissing,” warns Fox. “The handshake is safest. Keep it formal. The person with the higher status will initiate the type of greeting so if you’re not sure, wait to see what the gesture is from that person.”

It’s awkward greeting someone you know, but what about all those people you see every day that you recognize but don’t know? Maybe it’s the guy who is always on the treadmill right before you every morning at the gym. Or it’s that person you walk past in the hallway at work five times a day, every day. There are always people you see over and over, even though you’ve never officially met. Most of the time, you end up giving them a little nod and that quick smile that could be mistaken for a grimace.

That’s just not right, say the etiquette experts. “It’s a good thing to take charge,” says Carlin. “If you’re regularly seeing someone you haven’t been introduced to, do it on your own.” Chances are, if you feel awkward about the situation, the other person does too. And the longer you go without saying something, the worse it will get. When Fox worked for Apple Computer, she used to see the same co-worker every day and at best they’d exchange the grimace-smile. “I never took the time to stop and talk, and that gave me the air of being stuck-up,” she recalls. “Realize in those situations that it’s the time to talk about something, maybe work or current events. Always remember, first impressions are the key.”

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