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Social Greetings Analyzed: The Hug vs. The Handshake

It’s the most terrifying five seconds your life. An old friend, work associate, awkward family member (or basically someone that teeters that fine line between more than acquaintance, less than good friend) is coming your way and your mind races with appropriate greeting gestures. Senselessly, it almost always comes down to the polar opposites of greeting gestures: the hug or the handshake. The problem with having to make this critical decision is that no matter the choice you make, it is – 100% of the time – horrifyingly not the choice that your fellow greeter has made.

You know what I’m talking about – you choose the hug, they choose the handshake and both of you try to switch your choices resulting in the weirdest spastic dance sequence of arms simultaneously switching from open, to closed, to thrusting forward and pulling back while bodies move towards each other in a still questionable collision. Don’t forget that this frantic readjustment of limbs is always accompanied by verbal greetings which are also going downhill: “Hi! How are you it’s been so loo…ooop! Should…we…hug…or…? Yup….ok…haha! Ok so…”

The realization that you – and your greeter – have so obviously disagreed on the way to welcome each other is relationship ruining simply because of the differences in choice – hug or handshake – and their meanings. Let’s just say you chose the hug because, dammit, you’re a nice person and that’s what nice, friendly people do. They hug each other. Your soulless counterpart has chosen the handshake and even though you’re the nice one here, the choice of hug always leaves you worse off, and here’s why: When you go for the hug, you open your arms essentially saying to the person “Hello!  I want you pressed up against my body and locked there for a few moments.”

The handshake, on the other hand (pun intended!) says: “I want you to stay about *this* distance away from me. In fact, the only part of *my* body that I want to come in contact with yours is the palm of my hand here.”

So why are YOU worse off? Because, the politeness of the handshake always wins over the forwardness of the hug. When your open arms are met with that outreached stale hand, you feel as if you’ve imposed, invaded personal space, forever crossed a line. Just like that, you’re the over-affectionate, needy and unprofessional one while the dead inside hand-shaker has just been violated by your new age greeting, victimized by your forward ways.

What’s worse, is if they have a limp handshake, I mean come on, if you’re going to label yourself as a hand-shaker put some grip into it! Have you no self-respect?! Anyways, I could get into a whole separate post on weak hand shakers but I’m not going to give those weirdos the satisfaction.

So how can we avoid the hug/handshake interaction altogether? Here are a few options:

1) Keep your hands full. Scan the area and look for two full glasses, a heavy box, or a baby. A combination of all three would be particularly effective, as most people are not sure how to deal with a person holding a box full of drink wielding babies. If all else fails, come to events/gatherings with your hands covered in band-aids, because no one greets a person who has warts.

2) Be unconventional. Go for a high five, fist bump, belly bump, wink or “live long and prosper” signage. While these may be met with the same confusion as if you had chosen the hug or handshake, at least you will now be recognized as that cool/quirky/original co-worker/friend/family member/ex-girlfriend.

3) See what others do. If you’re with your sisters and you all have the same relationship to your awkward usually hand-shaking uncle, hide behind the youngest one and see what they do. Then follow suit. That’s what younger siblings are for!

4) Be verbal about it and outright say to your greeter:  “I’m going to give you a hug because it’s been so long!” or “I have to hug you because it’s International Hug Day”. Warning your fellow greeter about what is about to transpire prepares them for the physical contact they secretly so desperately crave.

After reading all of this, you may be thinking “Why don’t we all just go for the handshake every time? The hand shaker never feels as awkward as the (attempted) hugger”. True. But is that the kind of society you want to live in? Where hugging becomes reserved for married couples and frigid hand shakers rule the social events? No! Because the world could use a lot more love. So either we start hugging or we develop some wicked handshakes in their place. Personally, I am up for a combination of both.

You can read more from Taryn Parrish on Twitter.

Feature image via.

  • Devon Julian

    haha, I am totally the hand shaker, especially when I don’t even know the person, a scenario I am presented with regularly since moving to Australia. Yet, people offer to hug me when meeting for the first time, which never strikes me as appropriate, so I go for the handshake and always end up succumbing to a hug because everything about the situation is so awkward. Luckily, I can fall back on how I’m American and how we love a good handshake, ya know, cuz we love business, and usually I get a laugh.

    Even weirder is in Europe, when they suddenly without any warning lean into your face/neck area to KISS you, and you offer a handshake. NOW that is awkward.

    • Niko Lina

      I think Germany would be a good country for you, people here are generally not the hugging/cheek-kissing type. 😉

  • Ana Carolina Caumo

    I’m going to the US for six months on an exchange program and one of my biggest doubts is about the hug vs. handshake thing. In Brazil usually when you’re a woman and you’re meeting another woman you hug and kiss (like in Europe). If you’re a woman meeting a man you hug and kiss. Now if you’re a man meeting another man you shake hands. It’s really practical because 99% of the time I get it right but I don’t understand how I’m supposed to act in the US. North America is too complex. I’ll just go for the handshake I think.

  • Nicole Carolina Ruminot Casanueva

    I think that last comment goes for Latin American in general, I’m from Chile, and I’m also used to hug and kiss the other person in the cheek when I greet them. But there have been awkward situations when I have hugged someone and then we have different ideas about how long the hug should last, so one person is confortable with a long hug, and the other is pulling away pretty quickly (usually me).

  • Caroline Tara de Gier

    I moved to Holland from Denmark 2 years ago, and I still feel invaded with the cheek-kissing.. I don’t even want to do that with my closest friends, yet here it’s the culture and I have to kiss every uncle-cousin-whatever from my boyfriends side.. whenever I can get away with it I try to give them a handshake instead. – worst part is that even if you gave a handshake to begin with at an event, they might feel they know you afterwards and want to kiss your face, – I always try to stand behind random furniture and akwardly wave goodbye! all my personal space seems to be left behind in Denmark :(

    • Niko Lina

      I know exactly how you feel. I’m Croatian but grew up in Germany where people usually don’t hug (except it’s your best friends, then it’s okay) but Croatians always start the cheek-kissing thing which almost always leaves me standing around awkwardly because I feel SO uncomfortable with it! I mean, hugging people can be okay (if they seem like nice persons you would like to know better) but this cheek-kissing thing freaks me out! Stay out of my face! :/

  • Melissa K. Nodurft

    High five!

  • Charlotte Berghofer

    LOL never thought much about it. I tend to wave, still awkward but ends the physical contact issue. Speaking of less contact, I am now imagining Howie Manel and his awkward fist bump jabbing into long lost acquaintances’ stomaches as they go in for a hug.

  • Vann Pendley

    You need to learn to do a “dude hug.” It’s never a problem for us guys…start with a shake finish with a hug.

  • Charlotte Berghofer

    LOL never thought much about it. I tend to wave, still awkward but ends the physical contact issue. Speaking of less contact, I am now imagining Howie Mandel and his awkward fist bump jabbing into long lost acquaintances’ stomaches as they go in for a hug.

  • Anastasia Alaniz

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that freaks out at these moments. Physical touch to me is always awkward so while I go along with whatever, I’m always freaking out and thinking it’s strange and uncomfortable xD But in other cases, with people I’m more comfortable with, I’ll just outright tell them that I’m going to hug them haha.

  • Maria Gutiérrez Fonollosa

    I’m Spanish so when we meet someone we give two kisses. I’ve got some friends in Germany, and usually they give a hug and it’s kind of awkward that when I’m ready to give two kisses they hug me. I feel very strange every time this happens because when I don’t give two kisses when I meet someone I feel impolite. The next time I’ll try with high five :)

    • Petra de Abreu

      Yeah, same with me – in Portugal we kiss EVERYONE, with the exception of your boss. And sometimes you even do that! Lately I’ve been wanting to hug people, but people think that’s awkward as hell. IDK, to me it feels… natural. But maybe that’s just too much american tv…

  • Annie Whatsername

    Most of the times I am totally socially awkward with this handshake-hug thing. I am not really comfortable hugging friends, because I am not used to express my ‘friendliness’ with not-so-close friends via hugging. Once a friend of mine hugged me and I was caught off guard. And then she said ‘oh you are such light hugger’. And I was like in my mind ”Well, yeah, I am not hugging people every day unexpectedly.” I still can’t get when girls like to hug and when not. It might be quite confusing especially when you are meeting new people and suddenly they decide for the hug or you do it first!

  • Diana de León

    HAHA, this article is incredibly thorough regarding the whole awkwardness of the handshake versus hug dilemma.
    This did happen to me a couple of weeks ago on our department supervisor’s last day at work. He’s always seemed extremely professional so when he was saying goodbye to me, I was unsure how to greet him goodbye and the greeting that made the most sense to me was the handshake (polite, work-appropriate) and I just ASSUMED he was that kind of guy. All of a sudden he extends his arms and he asks for a hug and I quickly switch my handshake to a hug as well. Pre-tty awkward, to say the least.

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