A boozy office party was starting to dwindle, and as the drunker among us were sneaking off to find dark corners and hidden alcohol reserves, the reasonable ones had switched to water. The evening had kicked off early so it felt much later than it actually was. By any standard, it was a Thursday, and we’d all have to be back there the next morning.
My co-worker turned to our group. It was time to go home, he said, and offered our other male co-worker a handshake. Emboldened by beer, I stuck out my hand for a handshake when my turn came. It felt like an act of defiance—partly a joke, because it somehow felt too formal to shake hands with my co-worker, but it was an instigation too, because I didn’t understand exactly why a cross-sex handshake felt so odd. He looked down at my hand and laughed, and then opened his arms for a hug. I laughed too, undercutting my social experiment for fear of embarrassing one or both of us, and accepted the embrace.
The incident wasn’t a big deal; my co-worker is a close enough friend that the hug didn’t feel out of line. But others I’d received in the past from men in professional settings had felt less natural and more invasive, and from talking to other women, I’m definitely not alone.
“I work in a male-dominated industry, so often I am the only woman in the group,” said Katie Chin, who works in the tech industry in San Francisco. “It’s so clear sexism is at work during work functions when people say goodbye and shake all the male hands, but insist I get a hug instead.”
Another woman who works for a New York City-based consulting firm—a similarly male-dominated industry with high standards for professionalism—echoed Chin’s experience. “When I go on client meetings I notice my male colleagues will get the double grip handshake—handshake plus shoulder or elbow grip—but I never will,” she said. “But if we’re being ushered out of a room, I will get the hand on the small of my back and my male colleagues will not.”
While these moments are brief and subtle, their insidious nature is exactly what makes them worth unpacking. As our culture has become increasingly casual (both in the workplace and socially), formal greetings between men and women have found themselves in a grey area.
“There was a lot more personal space years ago,” said Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette expert Emily Post, and current co-president of The Emily Post Institute. Considering offices and even cubicles are almost entirely a thing of the past in many industries, it makes sense that our personal bubbles would break down. But this is also an office culture that is largely limited to millennial-saturated companies in urban areas, the kinds of places where people are using Slack to flirt with their co-workers. What about the more formal worlds of law, finance, or politics? I was curious if the hugs persisted there as well. Well, spoiler: they do.
I spoke with one staffer for a congresswoman, who recounted for me the gendered interactions both she and her boss regularly face in Washington.
“What bothers me the most is seeing my boss as a female member of Congress who is trying to move up in leadership still be kissed and hugged in professional meetings by lobbyists or other stakeholders,” she told me. “You wouldn’t do that to Cory Booker.”
“Even the love of my life, Joe Biden, is an awful offender of this,” the staffer told me, reminding me to never meet my idols. “He loves kissing and hugging women.”
There are undoubtedly women out there who actually enjoy hugging and kissing men they barely know. There’s at least one pretty famous one: Michelle Obama. Apparently, the former FLOTUS likes to hug so much that the official White House Photographer for the Obama Administration, Pete Souza, dubbed her the Hugger-In-Chief.
“Hugging is how I connect to people–how I show warmth and make folks feel at home,” Obama told Souza in 2015. And while Obama’s hugging feels like an extension of her personality, I do have to question whether she truly wanted to hug each and every one of the strangers she embraced during her years as a public figure. Surely there were some less-than-savory prospects whom Obama dutifully embraced. That’s practically part of the job, to act way happier and nicer than you feel. And if she hadn’t done so, she would have been punished for it, called inaccessible and unemotional.
That’s something that isn’t just reserved for dignitaries, either. Women’s struggle with a likability double standard has been well-documented. When it comes to choosing between your personal comfort level and accommodating someone else’s ego, it can be hard to stand your ground and risk your reputation. Most of the time I find myself giving into the expectation that I be cheerful and chill. “You’re such a guy’s girl,” my roommate told me once. She intended it as a compliment, but to me it meant only that I succeed in hiding my own distaste or frustrations with the actions of the dudes in my life. It’s hard work to stick up for yourself and risk ruffling feathers every day, especially when working in smaller industries where who you know and who likes you often translates to opportunities. And so, in my weaker moments, I hug who I gotta, smile, tell everybody they’re “the best,” and deal with my frustrations via group texts with my girlfriends. It’s better this way, I tell myself.
“We’re all supposed to be bubbly, and somehow a hug really reflects bubbliness,” Post, the etiquette expert, told me. She described some of the ways in which casual culture has raised the standard for cheerfulness: All our emails are punctuated with gifs, and a period at the end of a text message reads like a death stare. If that’s the case, Post wondered, perhaps hugs are just some men’s clumsy way of showing women that they don’t hate them? “It doesn’t have to be unfriendly just because it doesn’t come with exclamation points. I think that the hug is a physical extension of our overuse of emoji and exclamation points.”
So, what happens when women buck the status quo by refusing to offer up a hug? “I often get an awkward wave from males,” one female professional in the environmental science field told me, “but I hold out my hand even more awkwardly until they shake it.”
The congressional staffer sees her handshake as an important key to establishing her professional footing on the Hill, and resists hugs at all cost. “As a younger staffer I never want to hug,” she explained. “I’m already trying to prove myself and act older. So I usually am the first to extend my handshake and make it firm to set the tone that we will not be hugging or kissing.”
But even when a woman has seemingly won the handshake showdown, the condescension doesn’t stop. Many men love to say something like, quite the handshake you’ve got on ya when a woman offers something more vigorous than simply slipping her limp fingers into a man’s meaty palm.
“My dad taught me when I was young to always give a firm handshake and said it would be important for the rest of my life,” a female blogger for a digital media company told me. “And men comment on how firm my handshake is 100 percent of the time.”
A photographer based in the Midwest told me told me the same thing, which she jokingly boiled down to the sentiment, “‘But her wrists are so frail and pasty looking!’”
Chin, the tech industry professional, describes her handshake as “stronger than most men I know.” After noticing her impressive grip at a company event, she said “a bigwig sales guy even challenged me to arm wrestle. He lost, of course.” But Chin said that holding her ground in front of men has resulted in her being “feared without reason”—further proof that likability and huggability go hand-in-hand in the professional space. In order to get men to like you, you have to put up with them hugging you, because a firm handshake could shatter their egos.
One thing I hadn’t really considered until writing this was what’s going on inside the minds of the men. Do they too suffer from the fear that a handshake will come off as cold and estranging in 2017? Or do they hug us to spare our fragile appendages from crumbling in the grips of their vigorous man-clutches? Or maybe we just look chilly, and they’re trying to warm us up? As it turns out, greetings in professional settings stress everyone way the fuck out, men included.
“I’m extra-cautious about executing a properly firm but not-too-hard handshake when I shake hands with a woman,” one of my college friends told me. He said he’d heard that “women find it offensive when a guy gives them a weak-ass handshake,” which I do have to say makes some sense. Women don’t wait to be treated like delicate waifs.
A woman I went to high school said the same. “I’m actually offended when I’m out with my husband and I’ll see a man give him a firm handshake,” she told me, “then I get this dainty little finger shake.”
It appears that the anxiety men feel around cross-gender handshakes comes from seeing them as a high-pressure situation in which they’re expected to display that they know how to walk the line of being masculine without being patronizing.
“My dad said handshakes should be as firm as possible,” a male comedian friend told me, “but I’m not a psychopath.” (I cannot verify his claim.)
One self-proclaimed hugger believes his embraces are both an extension of his personality and a secret weapon that has helped him find professional success. “I’m a pretty outgoing, and I’d like to think warm-and-friendly person,” he explained. “So I find myself giving a lot of hugs in the workplace, which I think takes a lot of people by surprise at least at first. I think honestly, I benefit a lot from it, as a male. I’d say generally most other males don’t do it, so in some ways it makes me stand out, or people perceive that as a positive quality. It makes me seem a bit more ‘human’ in some ways.”
This hugger works in the consulting world as well, which makes for an interesting foil to the woman who noted her male colleagues are often overly physical with her. Whereas he does it to set himself apart from his peers, she experienced the other side of the interaction as as a gendered treatment that was singling her out. Any time you make assumptions about how a choice will be received, you’re risking it backfiring.
I went back to my co-worker who spurned my handshake at the party last summer, and asked him if he even remembered it. “Vaguely,” he replied, which probably means I’ve spent orders of magnitude more time stressing about that interaction than he has. I asked the other male co-worker who witnessed the event if he remembered, too. On the night of the party, he had sent me a thoughtful text about the handshake incident in which he admitted he never knew what to do in those situations. Now, looking back, he offered that he actually wants to hug everybody he’s friends with, but holds back with dudes because on some subconscious level he’s not comfortable with it as a straight guy. For him, the handshake is the stray from the norm, the choice that requires conscious effort.
In many ways, men are doing the best they can with conflicting information, conflicting codes of decorum, and a constantly changing understanding of what it means to be a man.
“Men get told that it’s appropriate to be friendly and give a hug,” Post said, “and then they get told that it’s really not appropriate to do that.” Her solution to handshake anxiety is so simple that neither I nor anyone else I spoke to had considered it: “The thing to do is ask.” Ask! Of course. Men, you can ask someone whether they’d prefer a hug or a handshake, and it doesn’t have to be weird.
On the women’s side, Post doesn’t think we all need to be Michelle Obama, but to simply choose what feels most comfortable to you. “I never want a woman to feel that she has to accept a hug,” she prefaced. “Get what you want out of the situation.”
Post’s preface brings up an important aspect of the hugging phenomenon: that hugs aren’t just annoying, they’re sometimes creepy and can feel like a violation. A lot of whether a hug feels sexual or disturbing has to do with a lot more than the hug itself. It’s about the situation, what was said, the eye contact, the body language. In many instances, the governing emotion in the hug-or-not-to-hug situation is fear. Fear of being seen as a creep is likely what keeps a lot of men from hugging even women they know well. But why do some other men assume that that level of closeness is something a complete stranger would be comfortable with? Maybe we should all just wave from far away.
So, what’s a woman to do? If you’re going to refuse the hug in favor of the shake, Post said things will feel a lot less awkward “if you go in with a bright, warm, friendly smile.”
That last piece of advice, while probably very practical, rankles me. Because it puts the onus on women to do the discrete emotional labor in the situation, making sure that no one’s feelings are hurt, or—god forbid—anyone feel awkward! The reason many women end up hugging men in a professional setting is because we are conditioned to help men prioritize their own feelings in these interactions. Men hug women because they’re afraid of coming off as cold or disinterested, but based on the accounts detailed by women above, none of them would be offended by a handshake; in fact, most of them would prefer it. And yet the parade of button-downed torsos continue to press themselves upon us, with little or no regard for our own personal space preferences.
We’re all in this mess together, which means it’s up to both men and women to work our way out. I’ll try to stand up for myself and insist on foregoing a hug when I don’t want to be hugged. And you can start by shaking my hand.
Catherine LeClair is a writer from Maine who lives in Brooklyn, like everybody else. Follow her on Twitter for some reason @catherineeclair.