A bear hug, or a bull run?
I come from a part of India, where hugging was a no-go, at least in the era when I grew up. My family was hug-resistant, no visible signs of affection were encouraged. The only person I remembered hugging was my paternal grandmother — but that was only when I was seeing her after a long gap. On birthdays, I would get a couple of quick kisses on my cheeks from my parents along with a few Enid Blyton books, the only time when the trend of PDA would be bucked. By the time I entered my early 20s, I had been conditioned suitably to judge those who hugged. So unnecessary and a bit icky, I’d think… inappropriate even.
All that changed when I moved to a new city — New Delhi — at the turn of the millennium. When I entered my then workplace, I was almost scandalised to observe people hug each other at the drop of a hat. “Oh, haven’t seen you for three days, were you unwell?” would be uttered in step with an embrace for one who had returned to office after being on sick leave. Worse, there appeared to be incredible gender equality at play: (members of) opposite sexes had no compunctions going up to each other for a cuddle.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, they say. So, soon, I fell in line. I was ginger at first, then loosened up considerably. I put it down to my unconscious yearning for “being accepted”. I couldn’t afford to be that remote, ‘uncool’ person who had a “small-town” punctilious chip on her shoulder. It took me a bit of time to get completely comfortable when hugging men casually: where I came from, a woman hugging a man freely — however dear a friend he was — would be viewed with suspicion, like it was an act laced with sexual innuendo.
On the other hand, when I offered to hug my Delhi flatmate — who hailed from my hometown, and who, like me, had been brought up on a strict “do not touch” diet — on her birthday, she froze. “Please,” she pleaded. “Can you not do that? Makes me feel like I’m very needy.”
My brother, who also moved to Delhi with a new job right after I did, didn’t quite understand why I was making moves on him whenever I’d see him on weekends, and would, instead, thrust out his hand for a handshake.
Is there a hug etiquette, I used to wonder. Like, how long did you have to know someone before you could be “open” enough to hug him or her? At times, I’d be startled when a person I’d just been introduced to would give me a hug. What about other kinds of “judgements” drawn? For instance, if I was sweaty, would I be emitting too much personal info? A colleague mentioned how she knew a male friend who only wore a certain brand of perfume — she had that little nugget on him because she would always hug him when they met. God, would I need to change perfumes I wore to keep those I hugged guessing about origins or should I make peace with the fact that they probably know cosmetic details of my life?
It was in Dubai that I learnt an email, often to virtual strangers, could be signed off with your name, followed by xoxo — which means hugs and kisses in layman’s terms. The hugging streak continued in the right earnest. Post dinners with friends would call for extra time when each and every person would hug others, while the rest awaited their turn patiently. But the virus suddenly stopped the viral run of the hugs in my ecosystem. With social distancing in place, they now have surrogates. Hug emojis, more than ever, are occupying pride of place. I notice the Hugging Face is the ‘most preferred’ emoji in my settings parameters, obviously I have been hugging lots of people very often on messaging apps — and it’s a gesture that’s been returned.
Having said that, normalcy may well be around the corner. The other day, I’d gone for lunch to a friend’s place, and when I entered her apartment, I made it a point to announce, “Let’s do fist bumps,” to which she said, “Are you crazy? I’m going to give you a hug.”