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A New Rule For The Workplace: 'Hug Sparingly'

Research psychologist Peggy Drexler says one way to resist an unwanted hug at work is with a stiff handshake. (iStockphoto.com)

Everyone loves hugs right? Well, no. And for those who aren't fans, things can get really awkward.

In a recent piece for TIME.com, research psychologist Peggy Drexler declared: "I am not a hugger. And I am not alone."

She calls for an end to the "hugging arms race," particularly at work.

"It's something that's in the zeitgeist, but we really haven't made any rules," she tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "My own rule is: I won't hug if you don't."

Drexler became acutely aware of her dislike for professional hugs after earning her Ph.D.

"I was feeling very professional and I saw a well-loved professor on the street and she was coming towards me," she recalls. "All of the sudden, I knew she was going in for the hug. It struck me, 'I don't want this, but how do I get out of it without being hurtful or graceless?' "

She thinks there are some occasions where hugging at work is acceptable: after a big win, a personal loss, or a big life event — like an engagement or wedding. In general, she says, "hug sparingly."

"If it's someone you see in your everyday life, you can become known as a serial hugger, and it's a bit creepy."

If hugging comes up, particularly at the office, here are Drexler's tips to help non-huggers break free:

  • Keep something between you and the hugger until the moment passes.
  • Be direct and say, "Sorry, I'm not a hugger."
  • Take physical control with a stiff handshake and firm elbow that keeps personal space intact.
  • Escape and find something that needs your personal attention.
  • If nothing comes to mind, drop your cellphone.

As a blanket rule, Drexler says, "If you wonder if a hug is appropriate, it probably isn't."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Everyone loves hugs, right? Well, no. For those of us who aren't fans, things can get really awkward. In a recent piece for time.com, research psychologist Peggy Drexler was not ashamed to state her position.

PEGGY DREXLER: Nope. I'm not a hugger.

RATH: So how do you get out of it?

DREXLER: Well, if it's in the office, you keep something between you and the hugger until the moment passes. Another is to be straight out and say: Sorry, I'm not much of a hugger. You can resist and take physical control with a stiff handshake and a firm elbow that keeps personal space intact. You can escape and find something that requires your immediate attention. And if nothing comes to mind, drop your cellphone...

(LAUGHTER)

DREXLER: ...and then just pick it up.

RATH: What motivated you to go public with your anti-hugging stance?

DREXLER: Well, you know, it started first when I had graduated after my Ph.D. I saw a well-loved professor on the street, and she was coming towards me. And all of the sudden, I knew that she was going in for the hug. And I thought - it struck me, I don't want this, but how can I get out of it without being hurtful or graceless?

And then - I don't know if you remember in July the mayor of San Diego was a serial harasser.

RATH: He gave hugging a bad name, I think. He said: I'm just a hugger.

DREXLER: Yes, he did. He said: I'm a hugger. He said: I'm just a hugger. So it got me thinking again that it is part of the culture at this point, what is acceptable and what isn't, and we all have feelings about it.

RATH: I guess we should draw the distinction for different social situations here because there are some people who are comfortable, say, hugging their friends. But this thing of now hugging in the workplace, I think for a lot of people, they're not quite sure how to handle that.

DREXLER: I think it is a concern. In the workplace, hugging has different implications for men and women. Women can look like the office mom.

RATH: Hmm.

DREXLER: And too much hugging can make a man look creepy.

RATH: I think we've all seen that too.

DREXLER: Yeah. Yeah. And my feeling is you don't hug anybody you supervise. In a big win, you might hug sideways, you know, put your arm around their shoulder, in personal loss. If somebody gets married, you can give a congratulations hug. But hug sparingly. If it's someone you see in your everyday life, you can become known as a serial hugger, and it's a bit creepy.

(LAUGHTER)

DREXLER: Don't whisper anything creepy or scary. Don't close your eyes. Don't hug anybody from behind, never in a restroom, for obvious reason. But I think the main rule is if you wonder if a hug is appropriate, it probably isn't.

RATH: Now, is this hugging mania particularly American?

DREXLER: Now, these are generalizations, OK?

RATH: Mm-hmm. Sure.

DREXLER: But Asian cultures generally hesitate about physical affection, especially in public. But then you get to Latin America, and it's kind of like, bring it on.

(LAUGHTER)

DREXLER: And Russia. They hug, they kiss, they slap on the back. And France is a quick peck on the cheek with minimal body contact.

RATH: So - I mean, I guess there's just something difficult about America, the wonderful thing about the diversity, but it's difficult to figure out what's the single right way to interact with people.

DREXLER: Well, I think that's the point, that there is none at this point, and there is hugging anxiety. It's something that's in the zeitgeist, but we really haven't, you know, made any rules. My own rule is: I won't hug if you don't.

RATH: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist who has recently come out against rampant hugging that seems to be taking over America. Peggy, thank you so much.

DREXLER: Thank you, Arun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH ARMS WIDE OPEN")

CREED: (Singing) With arms wide open... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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