Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hugging? Really?

If you live long enough, some of your quirks wind up being vindicated.  

Coming from a long line of Swedes, my family wasn’t particularly huggy.  The first time I heard the expression “God’s Frozen People” I laughed out of recognition.  Growing up in very Italian areas, a mode of being that was considered appropriate at home sometimes got read as aloof or standoffish when out in the world.  It wasn’t; it was respectful distance.  But that didn’t always translate.

In college the Scandinavian way was fine; I went to college in New England, in a pretty WASP-y place.  A certain distance wasn’t considered weird.  In grad school, though, it often was.  Older male professors often liked to greet people with the arm around the shoulder from behind, or the solid back-slap.  Every single time someone did that, I bristled.  It wasn’t threatening, exactly, and certainly not in a sexual way, but it still felt inappropriate.  It was like claiming ownership.  I didn’t care for it, which actually annoyed a few of them.  I respect others’ boundaries, and prefer that they respect mine.  Fair is fair.

Finally, the culture is starting to catch up.  Sweet, sweet vindication is mine…

IHE’s story about college presidents greeting people with hugs, and sometimes hugging them against their will, struck a chord.  

In work settings, a certain distance is often appropriate.  I see that as part of a larger philosophy of what should come with positional authority.  Positional authority -- workplace power, if you prefer -- should be understood as entrusted.  It’s about the institution, not the person, and the point of the authority is to help the institution meet its goals. Holding a position of authority involves being entrusted with power for certain kinds of purposes.  Using it for other purposes is violating that trust.  

In collective bargaining negotiations about ten years ago, I had a revealing colloquy with a professor.  The issue at hand was the “community service” expectation in the contract.  She suggested having each professor prepare a lengthy portfolio for the administration to review, encompassing all of the community service work they had done.  Her line, which I remember to this day, was “don’t you want to know the whole person?”  I surprised her with a “no,” saying that it’s not up to me to judge the whole person.  My job was to evaluate job performance.  The rest of a professor’s life wasn’t any of my business, as long as it didn’t interfere at work.  She looked surprised, and perplexed, but I think the basic stance makes sense.

(The point of that is to allow space for a personal life, not to sacrifice a personal life to work.)

I wouldn’t support some sort of blanket ban on hugging, obviously.  Some people have known each other forever, and there’s a context of a much thicker relationship.  And sometimes awful things happen.  I remember people hugging and crying in the hallways on 9/11, for instance.  In moments like that, it makes sense to loosen certain rules for a bit.

But those moments should be understood as exceptions.  Because the feeling of being claimed against your will -- even if the other person doesn’t consciously realize that’s what’s happening -- is degrading.  It shouldn’t be a part of work.  And that’s without even addressing the sexual side to it, which I’ve been spared but many people, especially women, haven’t.  That is not okay.

My advice to presidents?  Handshakes are fine.  In exceptional cases, hugs from the front can be appropriate, but be attuned to any sign that this isn’t an exceptional case.  And don’t sneak up on people and grab them from behind, ever.  Just don’t.  

If you aren’t sure, err on the side of respect.  It may lead to a few awkward moments, but over time, it wears well.  You don’t even have to be Swedish to appreciate it.