The rise of the business hug

It seems that in the past couple of years giving a hug as a greeting or farewell has become quite the norm in business.  But at what stage of your business relationship is it okay to hug? Or what about those awkward attempted handshakes that become half hugs?  Jackie O’Fee offers some excellent advice.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to a small group of senior executives at a retreat. What was special about this particular engagement was that not only was I delivering my presentation during, and after, dinner but due to their relaxed timetable and intimate number I had more time to take a few conversational detours. 

As I often do in my presentations, I also covered business etiquette and gave tips around building relationships at networking events. 

While I was explaining details around appropriate behaviour at a business lunch one of the attendees asked me about the increase of hugs instead of handshakes and even business kisses, what to do and when to do it. 

This was followed by a lively discussion including input from two European-born team members who not only hugged but kissed, and not once, but three times, and they kissed men as well as women. The conversation then segued into international expectations. 

Let’s leave the international rules aside for a moment and start with the rise of the ‘business hug’. It seems that in the past couple of years giving a hug as a greeting or farewell has become quite the norm in business. 

This has caused confusion with many of us; what if you know half those present well enough to hug but have only met the others that day – should you hug everyone? 

At what stage of your business relationship is it okay to hug? Or what about those awkward attempted handshakes that become half hugs? 

Here’s the thing – the business hug may be a source of absolute joy for someone who loves hugs but cause irritation or even revulsion to a non-hugger. 

So, if you are a ‘hugger’, in a business setting it’s best to assume everyone is a ‘non-hugger’ until proven otherwise. If you are a ‘non-hugger’ and want to avoid unwelcome embraces from your colleagues or associates, best you get your right arm out there for a handshake quickly. 

Another tip for a non-hugger is to out themselves – “Sorry, I’m not a hugger” is a direct way to deal with it. You can avoid coming off as cold and stand-offish by prefacing that with “It is really great to see you” while extending your hand for a handshake.  

Here’s some other tips for workplace hugs:

The first and biggest rule should really be: If in doubt –
just DON’T. 

Don’t be the person to make another uncomfortable. Not only is this impolite, it can cause ill feeling toward you and in your working environment. 

It’s not okay to preface a hug with “I’m a hugger” and assume that makes it acceptable to the recipient. That disclaimer doesn’t mean your lack of boundaries around hugs trump those of others. If the response is open arms, go for it. 

If you’re the boss, don’t hug a subordinate. This is territory that is fraught with difficulty and can be very tricky to navigate.

 You can’t expect someone who reports to you (either directly or indirectly) to be able to answer “Can I have a hug?” in the negative if they feel they will be perceived as not part of the team and you leave them little choice. If they initiate a hug, that is fine. 

Don’t hug in a business setting for longer than three seconds.  

Only the upper part of the body should touch. A business hug is really only shoulder to shoulder contact, otherwise known as the tepee hug. Definitely nothing should be touching below the chest.

Don’t add any sweet talk to the gesture, even if you know the person well. There should be no “you smell lovely” or “you give the best hugs”. Let’s be honest, it’s just creepy.

With the exception of a back slap during a bro-hug, your hands shouldn’t move. You certainly don’t want to go for a caress or rub.

Finally, let’s talk about the ‘kiss’ as a greeting. This generally happens between men and women, and usually when you know each other well. Old-school etiquette suggests that a man shouldn’t shake a woman’s hand unless she proffers it first and although this seems to have gone the way of lending a handkerchief (ewww), I think the same rule should apply here. Let the woman take the lead and kisses to the cheek only. In fact, most social kisses are a touching of cheeks rather than any lip contact.  

Jackie O’Fee is the owner of personal style consultancy Signature Style. She works with both individuals and organisations, is a popular speaker and television presenter. signaturestyle.co.nz

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