There's a viral video floating around that will either make you cringe or make you say, "It me." It shows Jerry Seinfeld being interviewed earlier this week on a red carpet when he gets approached by a fan — who just happened to be the acclaimed pop singer Kesha. "I'm Kesha," she says. "I love you so much, can I give you a hug?"
But she gets shut down pretty hard: Seinfeld doesn't know her and gives a quick, "No thanks," in defense. "A little one?" she begs. "Yeah, no thanks," he says, literally backing away from her. Kesha seems offended, and walks away dejected, while Seinfeld just laughs and says, "I don't know her... Well, I wish her the best."
The exchange is awkward, hilarious, and all too real for people who consider themselves "non-huggers." While some people think hugs — even "little" ones — are appropriate informal greetings for strangers, others really just want their space, or they only feel comfortable hugging certain people.
Whether or not someone is down for a hug often depends on the context, says Anne Nicotera, PhD, a professor of interpersonal communication at George Mason University, who is not a hugger. "Someone who hates hugging strangers [may still] enjoy hugging family," she explains.
That's because touching can mean different things to different people, and it can express a wide range of emotions — a hug could be a casual greeting, an expression of affection, or an attempt to comfort. "The kind of hug, with whom, and in what situation makes a huge difference in one's comfort level," Dr. Nicotera says. Plus, the various meanings of hugs are "deeply embedded in culture," she says, so your well-intentioned embrace may be interpreted in an unexpected way.
Some experts believe that the "boundaries of touch have changed in American culture," Amy L. Best, Phd, a professor of sociology at George Mason University, told the New York Times. "We display bodies more readily," she says,"[and] there are fewer rules governing body touch and a lot more permissible access to other people’s bodies." But that doesn't mean everyone's on board.
When a stranger approaches you for a hug, and you aren't DTH, you really only have two options: succumb and give an unenthusiastic hug back, or awkwardly decline. If you reciprocate the hug even if you're not into it, it can feel fake, which may be worse than not hugging at all. "When there is no emotional closeness, the hug loses its special meaning," Dr. Nicotera says. But just because you're "not a hugger," that doesn't necessarily mean you're afraid of all intimacy. Instead, "intimacy is a multi-faceted thing, touch is only a small part," she says.
So what should you do if you're face to face with a hugger and can't run away? Dr. Nicotera suggests simply saying, "Sorry, I'm not really a hugger," and then overcompensating by being warm in other ways. For instance, you could put a second hand over theirs in a handshake or "take them by the elbow," she says. Maybe you're more comfortable fist-bumping, dapping, waving, or just smiling.
Whether you think you're a Seinfeld or a Kesha when it comes to hugging, it's crucial to remember that everybody's different — and what you intend as a kind gesture might make someone else feel uncomfortable or offended. (And saying you're "a hugger" is not a valid excuse.) So, if someone around you is in distress or just seems like they could use a hug, you should ask permission. A simple ,"Can I hug you?" will do fine. And if your friend turns you down, let it go.
But if you're way more of a Seinfeld, own the fact that you're not a hugger because there's never a need to force intimacy, Dr. Nicotera says. And if all else fails, you can let your clothes do the talking.