If White House etiquette is any indication, you should be getting a random hug soon. The Obama family was always cuddly on the campaign trail, and last month the President bestowed no fewer than nine hugs on senior male staffers at a single meeting. (See pictures of Barack Obama behind the scenes on Inauguration Day.)
The Hugger in Chief didn't start the trend. At work and at school, even on first introductions--at least among the latest inhabitants of The Real World--the hug is gaining ground on the handshake. There are many iterations, including the hip-hop hug (a manly shake-and-squeeze combo), the ass-out hug (an awkward ordeal that precludes genital contact) and, for someone you're really close to, the full frontal (your standard bear hug). The big squeeze has been on the rise at least since 2006, when the Free Hugs campaign exploded worldwide. It got another boost last year, when hikers from Ohio and Pennsylvania started the Hugs for Humanity project, walking across America to deliver a million hugs. And yet another when John McCain and Sarah Palin embraced, however stiffly, at campaign rallies.
Why have we caught the hug bug? Mental-health professionals cite everything from increasing population density to community spirit among millennials. Some theories point to 9/11 bringing the country together and to The Sopranos showing that tough guys can hug too. More recently, the hit show Entourage prompted fans to "hug it out, bitch" (a tagline now immortalized on T shirts). "I'd always welcome a hug," says Aaron Schutte, a senior at Iowa's Wartburg College and founder of the 2,500-member Facebook group I Love a Good Hug. "Why not?"
Of course, hugging has its haters. Schools in a handful of states have banned the gesture, with a middle-school principal in Oak Park, Ill., explaining back in 2007 that groups of students--typically girls--were jamming the hallways with "extreme hugging" and making other kids late for class.
And let's not forget the increasing popularity of workplace hugs, which can be especially confusing, notes Susan Dunn, an executive coach in Dallas. "I have to say, 'O.K., there's a hug, and then there's a hug,'" she notes, the kind that can get HR involved. Nearly half the respondents in an October survey on the business-networking site Greenlight Community copped to hugging co-workers. But with the other half still greeting palm to palm, the consequences of a mismatched gesture can be painful--and not just because of the possible harassment suit. On the site Miss(ed) Manners, etiquette blogger "Dave" recalled extending a hand to a client who simultaneously went for a hug. The unfortunate outcome? "I punched her right in the crotch."
THE FULL FRONTAL Total body contact, heart-to-heart embrace and firm squeeze. For parents, children and good friends
THE ASS-OUT HUG Nothing touches below the shoulders. Reserved for the office, bad dates and references to Vince Vaughn
THE HIP-HOP HUG A.k.a. the man hug and the hetero hug. Shake with right hand and hug with left, two slaps on the back