To Hug Or Not To Hug At Work?

Is there a time and a place to get past the awkwardness and just do it? If so, who leads? Who follows? And what to do with that phone in your hand? Let’s fully embrace these touchy questions.

To Hug Or Not To Hug At Work?

Fast Company contributor Shane Snow opened up a Pandora’s box of awkward affection over at Medium when he wrote of a foible familiar to us working weirdos: So, um, do we hug?


Snow says that he always knows what to do when he runs into a male acquaintance: A handshake will suffice. But when he happens upon a female colleague, he feels like he’s “trapped between two walls of a deep-space garbage compactor,” in a fit of vaguely sexist geekery that Betabeat writer Jessica Roy subsequently skewered.

(This, you could say, is a time to hug it out.)

Observation: Hugs are intimate, weird, and great

My hunch is that the workplace hug-encroach relates to the casualness of startup culture–surely on Fancy Friday one always opts for the handshake.

But where does the awkwardness come from? As was brought up in the ensuing Hacker News discussion, awkwardness is, to paraphrase psychologist Stephen Pinker, “the uncomfortable feeling you get when you realize that your concept of your relationship with someone else doesn’t match their concept. The intensity of awkwardness roughly corresponds to the magnitude of difference in relationship concepts.”



Heavy stuff, right? Luckily, Atlantic writer Jen Doll explains a subtle solution for embraced awkwardness: The alpha of the interaction needs to press forward “with whatever greeting mechanism they prefer” and own it–and in this owning, awkwardness will be staved off for a moment longer.

Doll then proceeds to trace the taxonomy of the hug family tree: the Hug-fectionist, Alternative Greeter, and Side-Hug Aficionado all make appearances. As tech-encumbered mediafolk, we have particular affections for the Multimedia Back-Patter:

  • “You’re always holding your phone, and when someone goes in for the hug, there it is, up high in the air. In order to free yourself and it, you sort of tap the hugger on the back with it, which makes the hugger feel comforted and you, conveniently, able to free yourself from the hugger’s hugging grasp.”

Taking Snow, Roy, Doll and the denizens of Hacker News together, the hug seems to be a necessity to acting like the mostly hairless, mostly harmless, affection-needing bipedal mammal that we all are. Sigh.

The great job hug

As research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has shown, the shared positive emotions released by acts like hugs broaden the aperture of your creative thinking and build bonds between you and others–and with those bonds come opportunities.

For some people–okay, infants–a hug can save a life. Just be sure to own it.


Bottom Line: Own it. Hug well.

Hug vs. Handshake

[Image: Flickr user Andy Morffew]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.