The hug, long reserved for women, celebrating sports victories, and men from other countries, is muscling its way into everyday American Guydom.
Stoic machismo still thrives, but at its heels yaps a touchier, Dr. Phil version of virility. Boundaries are eroding. Defenses are being scaled.
The male hug is complicating everything.
Men accustomed to the automatic and dependable hand clasp accompanied with a brisk up-and-down pump at dinner parties and college reunions, now must preface their greetings or goodbyes with intricate and split-second calculations based on body language, length of friendship and other factors.
Do I shake or do I hug?
Making the right choice matters. If one guy goes for the hug, but the other decides upon a handshake, they might collide. An excruciating dance will follow, as the poor lads work feverishly to determine what to do with their hands, their arms, their bodies.
Memories of the previous disaster will haunt all following encounters. It's possible the fellows will even dread socializing, for fear of the paralyzing hug decision.
"It used to be a handshake. Now everyone wants to give the little bit extra," says Davis Cline, 43, sitting in the sun on the Denver mall with a few of his fellow construction workers on a recent afternoon.
Cline said "there's a time and place" for the male hug. "I don't know you'd get in front of all of your construction buddies and give hugs," Cline said. "Maybe we'd hit each other."
Whether to hug or hit sounds straightforward, but it's tricky, says Jason Tesauro, co-author of The Modern Gentleman (Ten Speed Press, $15.95), a guide to the protocols of maleness.
Absent any formal rules about the matter, Tesauro says that "if you are in a casual scenario and you are greeting someone, I don't think a hug is out of place. It says you are an extroverted, demonstrative person."
He hugs most of his male friends, he says, although he usually does not hug men upon meeting them for the first time. After that initial handshake, though, the hug could happen any time.
"Saying goodbye is always safer," he says. "You've built up fellowship. It's the difference between a hello kiss on a first date and a goodnight kiss."
There's more to the hug decision, however, than an embrace. The next question is: which hug?
With Cline, "a handshake, a pat on the back, that's cool," he says. "But the full-fledged hug thing is out."
So Cline chooses the ubiquitous handshake that has grown into a back pat. Other men opt for the embrace, with one arm around the waist, and the other draped over a shoulder: back-clapping tends to accompany this hug.
Former Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas, a big hugger, says rules are few when it comes to the man-to-man embrace.
Just don't take a hug too far, he warns. "If a hug becomes a mug, then you've got problems. You just have to know what that line is."
A hug to Thomas is a "higher level of greeting," one he doesn't bestow upon other guys right away but will unleash with abandon at any point after introductions.
Whether, and how, to hug or not falls along cultural lines, too. One of them involves a handshake, a mutual tug inward, and a shoulder-bump.
When Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University, is with men, he'll go right in for a certain kind of hug -- as long as the other guy also is African-American.
"If I was greeting a white guy, I would probably never go for the hug, it would always immediately be the handshake," says Neal, the author of the just-released book New Black Man (Routledge, $25), about black masculinity in the 21st century. "In the case of black males, particularly around my age, 40, it's the hip-hop hug: a handshake, you pull yourselves together, and you bump."
The alternating approach -- a handshake for a white guy, a hug for a black guy -- is cultural, he says.
"There are shared assumptions when I am greeting an African-American man ... there is a shared experience that connects us," he says.
Hugging between African-American men, though common now, wasn't always so, Neal says.
"For older African-American men, I would be more apt to handshake," he says. "I cannot imagine hugging my father."
At least two professors -- Kory Floyd at Arizona State University and Mark Morman at Baylor University in Waco, Texas -- have dedicated part of their careers to studying the male hug. The two often collaborate on research.
Floyd, for example, has studied the forms and duration of hugs between men. Rarely do they last much longer than one second. As hugs extend to two seconds or more, men watching the huggers quickly begin assuming the embraces are romantic, instead of just friendly.
Only men engage in the combination handshake-hug, says Floyd.
"It follows what we call an 'A-frame' configuration; the only body contact is the shoulders," he says. "Men often do it with their handshake in between them, so there is a physical barrier. The third thing is the aggressive patting on the back that comes along with it, which is a very combative gesture. It's a way for men to say, 'I have positive feelings for you, but let's show them in a way that is masculine and gender validating.'
"All of those things -- distance, a barrier, the combative movement -- are all stereotypically masculine ways of behaving."
Morman says male fear of hugging other men revolves around homophobia and family.
Some straight guys worry that if they are seen hugging other men, they will be viewed as gay, he says.
And for most men, he says, "fathers are the first role models we have for how to be men, and if Dad isn't hugging and kissing, chances are we aren't either."
While Morman agrees that hugging among American men is spreading, he says it always has occurred in certain contexts.
The more "emotionally charged" the environment, he says, the more freedom men feel to hug one another.
"If you are in the office, generally there is not a lot of emotion there," he says, and hugging remains taboo. But at a wedding or a funeral, or on a battlefield or basketball court, men for a long time have hugged without much hesitation.
Watch ESPN for a few hours, and there's a fair chance you'll encounter lots of big men embracing, especially after a big play or a victory.
Hugging is OK in sports, Floyd says, because a sporting event is "a very gender-validating environment."
Mechanics of the hug
The Hip-Hop: Guys greet with handshakes of various styles, pull themselves in toward each other, then bump their inside shoulders.
The Half-and-Half: Guys greet each other with standard handshakes, then reach around each other's shoulders with their left arms and pat each other's backs.
The Bear: Guys dispense with handshakes altogether. When they greet, the left arm drapes over the partner's right shoulder; the right arm goes around the waist. The left hand usually pats the partner's back.
-- Denver Post