The New York Times Style section tackled bro-hug etiquette this weekend, tracking the evolution of man hugs and singling out President Obama for some of his more awkward bro hugs with other world leaders. It’s a delicate dance, the man hug, and we’ve all been caught in awkward interregnum between handshake and embrace, and it rarely ends well.
I’m not a born hugger. In the South, man hugs were mostly reserved for our fathers after they bought us a car on our 16th birthday or when departing for college, and even those were awkward and confessional. But about ten years ago, on a trip to Los Angeles, I discovered that West Coast men hug. They hug a lot. They hug you when you arrive, and they hug you when you depart. They’re like Italian grandmothers. That was my introduction to casual bro hugs, something with which I’ve since become accustomed as it’s become increasingly necessary over the years.
Why do men hug more these days, anyway? A British sociologist in the Times pieces suggests that “our increased hugginess is attributable to declining homophobia.” Maybe? Yes? I don’t know. What I do know is that not wanting to hug another guy is not a sign of homophobia; it more likely represents discomfort with intimacy, and as evolved as we may have become, male intimacy can still be an unpleasant minefield.
I have no hard and fast rules about who I hug and don’t hug, but loosely, I can say that I am more likely to hug a casual friend that I am a close friend. Why? Because I, too, am uncomfortable with intimacy, and there is nothing intimate about hugging a casual friend. It starts with a handshake and ends with a terse back pat. But hugging a closer friend is weird because it gets all wrapped up in the intimacy and acknowledgement of the friendship. It’s like hugging your brother. I never hug my brother, because I love my brother.
There are steadfast exceptions, of course: Big guys you always hug, whether you are close friends or casual. Short, round teddy-bear dudes, you also always hug. On the other hand, willowy hipster guys with any form of creative facial hair? You never hug that guy. Nor do you hug exceptionally good-looking men (it’s not homophobic if you’re afraid of your own feelings, is it?)
Guys you hug: Seth Rogen. Tom Hardy. Dwayne Johnson. Will Smith.
Guys you don’t hug: Ryan Gosling. Michael Cera. Elijah Wood. Orlando Bloom. B.J. Novak
In most cases, it simply comes down to huggable vs. non-huggable men, and the important thing is, never force yourself on anyone. Start with the Clinton handshake — with your non-shaking hand, you reach up and pat them on the shoulder, and see where that takes you. You can’t lose. If he’s a hugger, he’ll reach back. If he’s not a hugger, the only intimacy you’ve inflicted is a totally acceptable hard pat on the side of the shoulder.