The psychology of the man hugby Sam Leith / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Barack Obama receives a hug from a fan: “there are men who are natural huggers” © Saul Loeb/ AFP/Getty Images
“My skin’s as pale as the outdoor moon/ My hair’s silver like a Tiffany watch/ I like lots of people around me/ But don’t kiss hello/ And please don’t touch.” That, at least according to Lou Reed and John Cale’s song “Open House,” was Andy Warhol’s position on the subject. He was at one end of the scale. A strict no-physical-contact man.
But the question arises—and it carries a whole trail of others behind it, like bows on the tail of a kite—how do men greet other men in a social context? I observe my own behaviour and, really, I don’t understand it at all. With adult women, gay or straight, the procedure is relatively straightforward. Handshake on first encounter; peck on cheek once you know each other a little. I’m discomfited by the first-time cheek-peckers, and prone to feel an awful wally when I go for the peck and she goes for the shake, or a shake gets turned into a peck (come here!), or the peck into a hug, or vice versa. And of course there’s the supplementary question—a fluttering on the kite-tail—as to why one would have a standard approach for women as distinct from men: does that make one a door-opening, port-passing chauvinist dinosaur? But, leave all that alone for the moment. I said it’s relatively straightforward, emphasis only on “relatively.”
With men, it’s much more complicated. My best friends are a handful of men I have known since we went to a boys’ boarding school together when we were 13. Despite—or, perhaps, because of that—it took us until our mid-twenties before we were able to greet each other with hugs; and the feeling persists that were there not wives or girlfriends looking on in despair at our general lack of emotional intelligence we’d all be happier with a handshake.
My own wife observes that when I go in to hug a man there’s normally a series of claps on the back of the sort that suggest I’m trying to burp a giant baby rather than welcome a loved friend into my personal space. This is a cousin, perhaps, of the famous Top Gun clenched-fist hug. It’s also occasionally accompanied by one or both of you saying something jocular such as: “Manly clasp!” It suggests discomfort—and the closer one is to the huggee, often, the greater the awkwardness.
And yet then, there are men I barely know who are natural huggers, and to whose arms-out, attacking-Spitfire-style approach—sometimes accompanied by the sound effect: “Aaaah…”—one obediently acquiesces. You take the hint from them. Conversely, there’ve been men I’ve felt I ought to try to establish a hugging relationship with, and who—well, just a disaster from the off. A disaster. Stiff handshakes reinstated; hug attacks never spoken of again.
To complicate this further, I also observe in myself, again without understanding it, that I more or less uniformly greet my gay friends with a hug and, in the odd case, with a cheek-peck. Does that mean, I sometimes wonder, that I am being actively if well-meaningly homophobic in a, like, massively retro way (by putting them into the mental slot reserved for women)? Is it simply that I am
taking a cue from them—as per huggy straight men—and that the gay men I know aren’t afraid to give another man a hug? Or—if we go with the idea that heterosexual male hug-anxiety is to do with sexual identity fear (hugging? is that, like, gay?)—could it be you make a special effort to hug gay men to prove you’re not prejudiced? Or is it possible I am massively over-thinking the whole damn thing and my gay friends simply smell better?
Final point. Who do I kiss on the lips? My wife, my children, my mother and my father. The last one revolts and surprises quite a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s odd at all. There’s a section very early in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when short-trousered Dedalus is being bullied, first for saying he does kiss his mother and then for saying that he doesn’t: “What was the right answer to the question?”
What is the right answer to the question? Andy? Anyone?