A candid discussion about hugging in the workplace

In the case of hugging, the recipient gets to define what’s best for them. Hugging is not for everyone and it can make some people extremely uncomfortable.

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Fortunately, we live in an era where more people finally feel comfortable speaking up about unwanted touch and situations that make them uncomfortable. Conversations are being sparked by news from Hollywood, politics, and workplaces, as well as more casual encounters with family and friends.

This leads many to ask: Is there any place for physical touch in the workplace?


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We believe there is a role for appropriate touch in work-oriented relationships.

Early in our research, we found that less than 1% of employees choose Physical Touch as their primary appreciation language – and it is the most frequently chosen the ‘least liked’ language. But Dr. Chapman and I chose to include physical touch in the appreciation languages for two primary reasons.

First, although there are clearly significant challenges, we didn’t want to advocate a touchless society even in the workplace.  Appropriate physical touch in the proper context can be extremely meaningful. In a recent Atlantic article, developmental psychologist Tiffany Field argued that, “As we get more isolated, we need platonic touch more than ever, even if we don’t realize it. A vicious cycle is happening, wherein the less people initiate, the more abnormal it seems when someone does, and the more likely it is to be upsetting.”

Secondly, physical touch “happens”  naturally in the workplace, largely as a demonstration of spontaneous celebration – a “high five” when you complete a project, a fist bump when a problem is solved, or a congratulatory handshake when a major sale is closed. (For a general discussion of the appreciation language of Physical Touch, read more here.)

Hugs need further discussion

Hugs, however, require another level of consideration.  Recently, I was invited as an expert to participate in a media discussion about hugging (this was after significant attention given to hugging by public figures in professional relationships.)  The discussion was interesting , but people largely focused on their personal preferences.  “I don’t want anyone outside of my family touching me, let alone hugging me!” Or,  “I’m a ‘hugger’ – that is the way I show affection, even to friends.”

We can clearly affirm that there are cultural, regional and personal differences with regards to the acceptability of hugging, and the settings and types of relationships which frame the parameters.  The acceptability of a hug varies greatly from one person to the next.

The core issue, really, is not whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to hug or even “am I ok with hugging?”  Rather, the key question to ask (and answer): “What is the purpose of a hug?”  In actuality, there are a variety of potential purposes for hugs in work-based relationships. Hugs can be a way to show warmth (“I’m happy to see you”), affection (“You are truly important to me”) and gratitude (“Thank you somuch for all you’ve done for me.”) But we must balance the warmth and respect we want to show someone with the boundaries of what’s appropriate.

There may be alternative actions which could be done to convey the same message desired by the person who wants to give a hug to someone else.

In the case of hugging, the recipient gets to define what’s best for them. Hugging is not for everyone and it can make some people extremely uncomfortable. Each person gets to define how much personal space they want, and it is important to remember that some people have been victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Understanding that other people are different than you

The premise of both the Love Languages and Languages of Appreciation, is knowing your language and also realizing that other people prefer other languages. To successfully communicate love or appreciation, you have to do it in the language (and actions) most valuable to the recipient. This is an important reminder that it’s not about what you want. The fact that you are a ‘hugger’ or that you ‘need a hug’ is not a sufficient reason to ignore someone else’s wish not to be touched.

So, how do we find balance in the workplace? The first step is to accept the premise that the recipient of a physical gesture is alwaysthe person who has the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of physical touch to them. When in doubt, ask first.Exclaiming, “I am so happy for you!” and asking, “May I give you a hug?” is more appropriate than exclaiming, “I am so happy for you!” while simultaneously giving them a hug, and then stating, “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself — I’m just naturally a ‘hugger!’”

Talking about touch – and especially hugging – ahead of time is important.  The responsibility seems to fall especially to those individuals on both ends of the spectrum.  For those who do not want to be touched (or specifically, hugged) by colleagues, you should take the initiative and say something like: “I’ve observed you seem fairly comfortable with hugs, but I need to let you know that hugging feels uncomfortable to me and I would request you honor that boundary for me.”  For those who are ‘huggers”, you would be wise to have a conversation with your coworkers and state: “I grew up in a family and culture where hugging was a normal part of life, and often giving a hug is a natural response for me.  I want to respect everyone’s boundaries and will try to ‘think before I act’, but if I happen to slip and make a mistake, please let me know.”

An important next step is to figure out and use other ways to communicate warmth – like greeting someone warmly with a smile, looking the person in the eyes, shaking their hand, accompanied by a enthusiastic, “I’m so happy to meet you” (or whatever the appropriate verbal communication is.)

Conclusion

Physical touch in the workplace can be both very positive and healthyand extremely unhealthy and damaging, depending on the individuals involved, the types of touch, and the cultural context. This fact, I believe, contributes to the strongly held beliefs on both sides of the issue. And, given the individual and cultural differences involved, both perspectives are equally valid. Hence, the dilemma (and discussion) about physical touch in the workplace will probably continue.

Note: ALWAYS make sure you know your company’s policy on touch and physical interaction in the workplace. If you are unsure, check with your supervisor or Human Resources Officer to make sure you fully understand the legal boundaries laid out by your employer.

This article originally appeared on Appreciation at Work. 


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Paul White|is a psychologist, speaker, consultant, and the author of The Vibrant Workplace, co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.