On the Decline of Hugging

A reflection by Lindsey

Everyone who knows me knows that I love hugging. I regard Lindsey hugs as a global public good. Hugging can tell you a lot about people, especially if you’re lucky enough to embrace another person who knows how to speak the language of Hug. Yes, I firmly believe that hugging is a language. And unfortunately, hugging is quickly on the decline.

I have some hypotheses as to why people have stopped hugging. However, I don’t find any of these possible reasons especially convincing. So I wonder, why are people so willing to send hugging to the margins of acceptable touch?

The word acceptable gives us some clues. Somehow, some way, an untold number of westerners have bought into a cultural myth that hugging belongs only in one’s family. You can hug your mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, siblings, grandpas, and anyone else who might receive regular invitations to your family reunions. Venture outside of these limits of acceptable hugging, and all of a sudden, you’re somehow indicating a romantic interest.

I’ve been in plenty of venues where I find myself asking, “What message is this hug sending?” But more so, I wonder what the other person is communicating to me. Is he/she nervous, confident, stressed, jubilant, comfortable, completely weirded out, or some other mash-up of various emotions? When one speaks Hug, one can learn an untold number of things about another person from a single embrace. Hug speakers expect that no two hugs are ever the same because no two people are ever exactly the same. It’s not enough to know that, “Bill likes to have every last bit of air squeezed out of his lungs,” and, “Sam would always prefer a high-five over a hug.” Huggers need to be adaptable, adjusting their hugs to meet people wherever they are.

Good hugging requires a high degree of emotional awareness. You need to know what’s going on in yourself, read what’s going on in another person, and make adjustments accordingly. Good hugging is hard. It allows the two people a level of connection they may not otherwise experience. And I think most people just aren’t comfortable with that much vulnerability. After all, if you’re going to hug someone properly, you have to share physical space for a bit. It can be easier to keep your distance from others.

I think the world is a better place when huggers can hug. I do understand that not everyone is a hugger and I wouldn’t want to pressure anyone to change his or her hugging style. However, I do think many Western cultural contexts frown mightily on hugging and put huggers in a proverbial straight jacket: keep those hugs to yourself! Many people would caution celibates to avoid hugging lest hugging lead down the slippery slope of sexual temptation.

From my perspective, freedom to hug is part of the wonder and joy of my celibate vocation. I see hugging as an overflow of radical hospitality. It’s a part of my vocation I’ve always been good at. I remember working at Scout camp and giving good night hugs. Some weeks, the campers literally lined up for my hugs. The trend has continued. It’s rare for me to visit friends and not spend a good chunk of my day giving hugs. I love it when people say, “Lindsey hugs are the best part of these gatherings.”

It’s never quite computed in my mind why people assert that a celibate vocation means cutting oneself off from all forms of intimacy with others. I believe that celibate vocations open us up to the possibility of deep human connection. For me, that connection frequently comes through hugging. Something about hugging helps me feel deeply connected to myself and to another person. I’m able to come alive in a different way than usual. Not everyone has the same appetite for hugging, but different people can meet the same need in other ways. For Sarah, that same sense of connection comes from long, energetic, enthusiastic conversations. I occasionally experience a desire to be incredibly excited for long stretches at a time. There are some select friends I’ll share those experiences with because I want to be accepted exactly as I am in those moments. But my intimacy needs aren’t the same as Sarah’s, so Sarah’s way of connecting with others doesn’t work quite as well for me as hugging.

I have to wonder if hugging is quickly on the decline because people would prefer to avoid being vulnerable with one another. It’s humbling to be asked for a hug. It can be even harder to ask for a hug yourself when you need one. No one wants to be the emotionally high-maintenance friend. We avoid conceiving of ourselves as interdependent on anyone, making occasional exceptions for our close family. However, when we draw firm and static lines around who we can be vulnerable with, we also find ourselves talking about “acceptable” people to hug. I think those lines do much more to hurt us than to help us. And so, one hug at a time, I hope to create more space for people to share their vulnerability with me and experience acceptance.

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