The Etiquette of Business Hugs

I like to hug.

It’s a learned behavior. I’m German, and I have no memory of folks hugging a lot when I was growing up. First time I started hugging my mom and dad as they picked me up at the Cologne airport both of them froze. Goodness, what had happened to their Americanized son?

I was well into my 30s at the time.

So yes, I hug friends in my personal life. And I hug some of my professional colleagues. Men and women.

This week John Lasseter, the senior creative executive for both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation, took a six-month leave of absence from his job. Mr. Lasseter is a hugger. Hugging is part of his public persona. I especially want to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape, or form, he wrote in an email reviewed by the Wall Street Journal (11/22/17).

Mr. Lasseter’s note and leave from Disney make me pause. Because hugging was part of his public persona, and because Mr. Lasseter is a person of power, employees felt it would be difficult to ask him not to do so, those people said. I am neither a person of Mr. Lasseter’s social power, nor do I believe that hugging is part of my professional persona. But Disney’s move got me thinking: So how DO I know when it’s OK to give a business hug?

If you’re not a hugger like me, consider this an anthropological document. If you DO like to hug, I invite you to reflect on your inner hug-meter while I contemplate my own. My hugging guidelines are highly intuitive; they break down roughly as follows:

  1. When I meet you for the first time.

I don’t extend a hug in a first meeting. It feels overly familiar. And I am likely signaling to you that I don’t wish to be hugged by you, either.

My first-meeting-exception: When someone greets me with excitement and says I have heard so much about you or I have so looked forward to meeting you AND indicates via wide open arms that s/he is eager to hug, I hug. Gladly. In this moment we actually have a history, of sorts, even though we have never met in person.

  1. When your body language does not invite a hug.

We have a very cordial business relationship. I feel like we’re “real” with each other. My sense of you, however, is that you’re not a “touchy-feely” person. Your body language is very composed, and I will not take the risk of a hug with you. I will happily accept a hug from you if you choose to initiate.

  1. When your body language says you’re happy to see me.

We have had substantial business dealings with each other before this meeting. We have looked forward to finally seeing each other in person. Or we unexpectedly run into each other, and we’re both clearly delighted by this surprise meeting. You’re body language unambiguously conveys this delight. I see it in your face, and I see it in your open arms. Yes, I will take a risk and initiate a hug.

  1. When a hug might be misconstrued.

I think about female colleagues or clients here. Even when we know each other quite well and I see your arms outstretched as you walk toward me, I will do two things: I open my arms to indicate that I’d like to exchange a welcome hug. And at the same time I ask for permission. May I give you a hug? I pause for a mini-moment. This allows you, my colleague, to initiate the hug.

I tend to like a “bear hug.” A big heartfelt hug. If it’s our first professional hug, I will not impose a bear hug on you. I will follow your lead on how tight or close this hug is meant to be. A “formal hug” will do just fine. For the first hug. For any hug.

I live in the Metropolitan Miami area. We may be more inclined to hug here, in my neck of the woods, than folks in other parts of the US or the rest of the world. We air-kiss with a vengeance. Understood.

Mom and Dad got into the hugging part. Very quickly.

I will stay mindful. Of context, of relationship, of unambiguous social signals. And yes, I will continue to hug.