How We Ruined Hugs (And How to Fix It)

Remember when all hugs felt like they actually meant something? You were 9-years old, your grandma would greet you at the airport gate in Ft. Lauderdale (or somewhere else if you’re goyim) and hold you like you were the most important person in the world? At first you felt loved, then she’d squeeze harder and you felt even more loved, until finally you’d arrive at boredom: How could anyone want to hug anyone for so long? Within one hug you transformed from participant to mere recipient, and it would be decades of suffering before you’d get the answer to said question in your mind.

The inception of hugs had to be love, as it is obviously an expression of the oneness we feel with each other, and/or that which we’d been missing up until the point of just seeing them. My friend once posed a theory that whomever in the hugging pair raises their arms higher is fonder of the other, though I think that fails to consider the factors of flamboyance of character as well as physical height.

Like clothed, platonic sex, it is an expression of affection, I suppose to varying degrees, as everyone holds for different durations and runs the gamut of grip strengths. Possibly the yin to the yang that was the 1980’s American man’s handshake, there is an advisable technique, right? Handshakes were to be firm and strong. Not so strong that it felt effortful, with direct eye contact and a commanding pump, it was the typically repressive, heterosexual male greeting, only to be outdone by the Asian bow.

Today it seems like we hug more often and freely, but is it because we’ve actually grown more affectionate, or much like what Millenials have done to the word, “literally,” has the hug just lost its significance? My recent experience of most hugs, especially from the opposite sex, has been weak, disappointingly hollow with an accelerated release and/or too weak of a squeeze. Instead of love or oneness it feels like the equivalent to the dismissive handshake given by the arrogant Hollywood mogul who barely acknowledges your existence.

Surely, the problem could be me. Maybe most of my huggers aren’t especially fond of me. Maybe they’ve no interest in holding or hugging my despicable frame, and instead only do so out of social obligation and preference to insult. Maybe I’m a perverted creep, just begging for my scapulae and posterior rib cage be briefly palmed by more female hands, and the reason my experience of most hugs as insincere is a simple result of my own lack of likeability. It’s possible… but doubtful.

My suspicion is that the more feminist-friendly, “New Age” yoga culture has made hugs more the social standard, which was initially lovely, but ended up inadvertently accommodating those whose issues of repression made the greeting kiss uncomfortable. I recall the experience of running into female comedian peers at shows during my 15 years on the circuit and consistently feeling gut-wrenching disappointment at nearly all of our hugs that made me wonder why the hell we were even doing it. Why not just shake hands like the two 50-year old dads in 1980’s suburbia that we’d apparently become?

I remember first seeing the movie Kids (1995), and coveting how cool were the culturally diverse group of urbanite friends depicted in the movie. I thought it was great how all the guys and girls would greet each other with a kiss on the cheek and wished my own circle of friends did the same. Their kisses didn’t seem at all erotic or inappropriate, but instead confident and mature, most of all loving.

I think there are strengths and weaknesses within each culture, some of them via social conditionings, others possibly even inherent (though that is a more controversial article for another time). In high school while dating a Dominican girl from Washington Heights I remember thinking that certain behaviors of her friends and family seemed less desirable than that of my own, then others did much more desirable. For example, they were more generous with food. Even if only a pile of yellow rice, beans and ketchup purchased on food stamps you couldn’t walk into anyone’s home without having a plate pushed on you. I also liked that their parties were loud and most of the people were dancing. Personally I’ve never liked Latin music, but have always appreciated that their parties seemed to better define the word party than does a bunch of bro’s standing around a keg talking about the NFL Draft and girls who’re standing by another keg talking about boys. Pretty pathetic.

Finally, my (then) girlfriend had plenty of friends of both genders and every time they greeted one another hello or goodbye they’d kiss on the cheek. Even in a chance encounter on the block where they spoke for only 60 seconds, it was implied that there’d be two kisses: One for hello and another for goodbye. I thought this was a lovely custom.

Part of what drew me to hip hop and/or black culture was the pound and the hug. Whereas most suburban white kids would greet each other with the regular “pound,” a palm-slap with double grip, it usually lacked the accompanying opposite arm hugging around back, which left the whole interaction feeling rather sterile, soulless and unaffectionate. Whereas in the hood, whether a result of a mutual awareness of each other’s sociological struggle, a more free-spirited attitude around affection, or combination of the two, the men have always greeted one another with the hand-slapping pound followed by a hug. This disparity in physical closeness might serve as a nice metaphor for the value of community in the respective cultures. Go to the park in New York on any summer weekend and you’ll see hoards of black and Hispanic families sitting around the barbecue and simply gathering for hours at a time. My opinion is white American culture tends to overvalue material gain and financial stability at the expense of community, which is why most of the white people you see in that same park are alone, going for a run, just exercising to try and burn off some of the stress from the previous work week. I know so because this has been me and it’s something about my life I wish to change. I don’t think criticizing the flaws in one’s own culture qualifies as self-loathing anymore than recognizing those in others does as necessarily racist; instead that both depend on the observer’s understanding that said flaws are mutable. I digress.

In the West we’ve ruined the hug, just like we did food and yoga, medicine and everything else. We’ve extracted from the hug its entire original intention and relegated it to the status of handshake, thereby allocating it to the millions of muggles who lack the warmth or confidence to display physical affection with any freedom or sincerity. The hug is just a plug, an extension in awful irony where we’ve learned to embrace one another and still experience the same distance we do with a wave.

The solution I propose is an outsourcing from our Hispanic brothers and sisters - a return to my ex-girlfriend’s communal conditionings of the kiss on the cheek. The kiss on the cheek is just so lovely, so loving and perfectly affectionate without being inappropriate, and most wonderfully it is foolproof. There can be no weak hold, nor uncomfortably fast release since the entire act is a mere peck that’s over in an instant anyway; yet it is so much warmer, we could be so much warmer if we’d just drop these bullshit, repressed, soulless American hugs.

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