When I was young, I had two aunts, portly ladies who sweated a lot and liberally dosed themselves with talcum powder, who, whenever they visited just could not restrain themselves—they had to hug and fondle their nephew. I grew up in Texas where it’s warm to hot almost year round and the combination of being almost smothered in their generous bosoms and breathing in sweat and talcum scent was overpowering and created in me a phobia to being hugged. I would sometimes run and hide whenever they visited, which drove my mother batty sometimes.
I carried that aversion to being hugged into adulthood and seven decades later still have it. It has caused some hiccups in my relationships with people, especially personal and romantic relationships. It has also impacted some of my working and professional relationships. I was a diplomat for thirty years and some of those years were in cultures where hugging and physical contact is common. I’ve developed a number of ways to account for my aversion to physical contact over the years, some successful, some not so successful.
One of the coping mechanisms is the custom in countries like Thailand where people greet each other with small bows, called wai, rather than handshakes or hugs. When I was in places where people hugged I would preempt them by bowing. This has also come in handy during the pandemic when I’ve found myself in the company of people who for political reasons ignored the social distancing guidelines and insisted on close-in interactions and handshakes.
It doesn’t always work. Some people look at me funny when I do this, and there are even a few who make comments about it. My response when people choose not to respect my physical boundaries is that I am made uncomfortable by being touched. That often makes them look at me with even funnier expressions, as if I’m one of those oddball germophobes who eschew all physical contact. I’m not. I shake hands. I just feel uncomfortable being hugged by people I don’t know well. I can jug my grandchildren, my children, my significant other and other close relatives, provided they don’t cling too long or too tight.
So, if we should ever meet, we can get along famously, even if you’re a hugger. Just, please, remember that our friendship will be more solid and last longer if you will minimize those hugs—maybe give me a while to get to know you before you do. I will shake your hand as well, without the crushing grip that some people find so popular, and without the limp, dead fish handshake that turns so many people off. A nice, firm grip, three pumps, and release. Of course, if you wish to put your palms together and bow ever so slightly, I’m for that as well. – NWI