Chinese Embrace Hugging, But Americans Are Wary of the 'Awkward Embrace'

PHOTO: The Chinese are emulating the physical warmth of North American culture, with hugging gaining in popularity.PlayGetty Images/Image Source
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Americans are known worldwide for their enthusiastic hugs, and now the Chinese are emulating the physical warmth of North American culture. School children are being taught emotional intelligence and given “homework” to go home and hug their parents.

Since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the physically restrained Chinese are fully embracing hugging, according to a story last week, "More Hugs Please, We’re Chinese," in the New York Times.

“Recently, it seems like everyone is hugging,” it reports. “Friends are hugging. Family members are hugging. In hugging between Chinese and non-Chinese, it was non-Chinese who once foisted physical affection on the Chinese. Today it may be a Chinese initiating contact. The tables are turning.”

But do they understand the American nuances?

“Hugging is an art form,” says Amy Binette Wolfe, a 35-year-old mother of three from Pittsfield, Mass.

“Too long of a hug is awkward. The short hug is preferred. I've started a conversation or a meeting with a handshake and ended with a hug. … But you're not going to have a meeting where you're bitching out the tax man and end it with a hug,” she added.

American hugging comes with rules, and Wolfe says, “Beware of the wandering hand-hugger."

A St. Louis University cultural guide for its international students warns them to keep an 18-inch distance when talking to others. “This personal space is very important and, if limited, the individual may become uncomfortable,” it says.

“Typically, Americans do not hug or kiss an acquaintance upon greeting -- but rather shake hands or nod their heads. They also do not touch while speaking, although a brief touch on the arm or shoulder might indicate sympathy or concern to someone they know well. Once a friendship has developed, women may greet each other with a hug or embrace.”

And then there are those who run from the eager-beaver hugger.

“When I run into a male acquaintance, I know exactly how to greet him: shake his hand,” writes Shane Snow of The Medium. “Doesn’t matter how long we’ve known each other. I even shake my dad’s hand. ... But with women, I feel like I’m trapped between two walls of a deep-space garbage compactor.”

Jen Doll writes in "The Huggers Among Us: A Guide to Greetings," on The Wire, “There are, of course, as many types of huggers as there are types of humans.”

She outlines at least a dozen including the “Alternative Greeter,” who high-fives or “clasps hands emotively”; the “Grandma”; the “Political Hug,” like a bear; and the “hugger with room to move” who barely touches the other’s arms and back and whose “torso will forever remain in its own separate continent.”

Within families, hugging can be “key” to attachment, according to Jody Todd Manley, clinical director of the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family center. Still, all families do not have the same “comfort levels” with physical affection.

“Feeling comfortable with a hug from mom is maybe not as close as with Aunt Tilley,” she said.

“There can be personal space issues around how well you know a person,” said Manley. “The personal context and even the length of the hug or intimacy can be uncomfortable if it’s not someone you have a relationship with.”

Some serial huggers say that the custom may be “fading,” as a result of technology and less face-to-face interaction.

Hillary Mains, a 32-year-old mother of two from Pepperell, Mass., said hugging family and friends and even “people you have just recently met, but hit off well with,” used to be “commonplace.”

“I find myself feeling the situation out and even when I feel it’s acceptable, I pre-cursor it with, ‘I’m a hugger, so I’m gonna give you a hug.’ I’ve never been rejected, for it, but if I don’t say that, there is a definite air of ‘should I or ...?”

In today’s climate sensitivie to sexual harassment, teachers are hesitant to touch students because of fear of reprisals from suspect parents or potential bullying. Children learn to “keep your hands to yourself,” said Mains.

“With my 6-year-old Tyler, I’ve always encouraged him to hug when he says ‘bye to a person close to him,” she said. “Now, I notice him backing away from it. … The only exception to that is me, his dad and his brother.”

“It seems to tie into when he started school,” she said. “He actually seems slightly more wary to hug his peers than he does with aunts, uncles and grandparents.”

Still, Amy Binette Wolfe says the hugging culture is still alive and well in her small community in the New England Berkshires.

“I’ve met many, many people, and it’s all hugs, hugs, hugs,” she said. “I am not always the initiator. Thank goodness, because this sounds like a love fest. I consciously look for signs that the hug is happening or if the hand is coming out for the firm handshake.”

“But if you're chatting about your kids and show emotion or vice versa, and the person knows you ... the hug might happen,” she said. “That being said, as much as I adore the kids' pediatrician we don't start off or end appointments with a hug."

“I did hug the kids’ dentist once,” she added. “It was purely an accident. … There was a lot of awkwardness. Thankfully, the dentist is awesome.”