HUGGING IS A NICE, friendly gesture. It shows you care about a person. It makes them feel wanted; it makes you feel good.
But a hug can be a no-no in business, a faux pas among casual friends, and a cultural catastrophe with some foreigners.
Then again, depending on where you grew up, it can be as natural as breathing.
"But in business practice, there are definite unwritten rules," says Deanne Shapiro, president of Life Skills Associations, a consulting company in West Hartford, Conn., that runs human-relationship workshops. "People have a comfort level, and if you cross that line, it causes uneasiness."
There does seem to be a geographic influence on the inclination to hug.
"The closer to the equator you get, the more hugging people do," Ross Buck, a University of Connecticut professor who studies pTC and writes about such personal phenomena, says. "It may be related to the day-night cycle. Nobody really knows the answer."
So Italians hug more than Scandinavians, and Jamaicans more than Argentinians.
And in many Muslim countries, men are likely to embrace and even hold hands walking down the street. (There is no word for privacy in Arab cultures; it is interpreted as loneliness.)
"In Muslim prayer there is a ritual where men kneel shoulder to shoulder," says David Kerr, director of the MacDonald Center for Studies of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.. "In the Arab cultures, the community is much more important than the individual. It's just the opposite in the United States."
So the full-body hug is an extension of membership into that community. That's why Saddam Hussein, even when he is thinking of warring with fellow Arabs, is always seen embracing them at meetings.
"A funny thing happens when Arabs and British diplomats have to engage socially," Kerr says. "The Arab keeps moving closer while the Brit backs up. They work their way across the room all the while the Arab is thinking, 'What a cold fellow,' while the Brit is thinking, 'What a pushy fellow.' But each is doing what seems culturally correct."
There seems to be some credence to the cultural touching ratio. Buck describes an international study in which couples were observed at restaurants to see how many times they touched each other per hour.
In England, the average was zero; in Gainesville, Fla., 2; in Paris, 110; in Puerto Rico, 180.
When dealing with the Japanese, it is customary to stay far enough away so that when both parties bow, neither bops the other on the head.
"All cultures regard touch as intimate behavior, but each culture regulates the level of intimacy," Buck says. "In Japan, if you look directly at someone or raise your eyebrows during a greeting, it's too pushy."
In China, women are not supposed to show their teeth when they smile. In Arab countries, many women wear veils and are not supposed to touch any man except close relatives. But tourists in Hawaii get a traditional greeting of a flower necklace and a kiss on each cheek.
"I grew up in an Italian household, and I used to give my mother a hug and kiss when I made a five-minute trip to the store," says Kay Honke, who runs Confidence Inc., a business-manners consulting company. "But you can't translate a social culture into the world of business. The only acceptable form of greeting in business is a handshake."
(Chimpanzees shake hands, too. That has been observed as greeting behavior. In one instance, a grouchy male seemed much less aggressive after a mother and infant reached out to him and shook his hand.)
But back in the corporate world, if there is going to be more than a handshake, the initiation has to come from the person who is perceived as having more power.
"If the CEO wants to congratulate you after some achievement, then he or she should start the hug," manners expert Letitia Baldrige says. "But if the junior executive hugs the boss, that's seen as a very different thing."
Baldrige, a Connecticut native who has lived all over the world, served as social secretary at the U.S. embassies in Paris and Rome and was chief of staff for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House.
"You don't really study something like this ahead of time," she says. "You can't tell the president of the United States and the prime minister of England not to hug each other. It's a very personal thing. If they feel like it, they will do it."
What really frosts Baldrige is "air kissing."
"That started on Johnny Carson's show about 25 years ago," she says. "These people just saw Johnny and each other moments before, and then they come out and do this totally phony kissing on the cheek, but no lips ever touch skin."
So, if you are going to hug or kiss someone, do you have to really mean it?
"Of course," Baldrige says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"