These days everyone hugs. They hug hello, they hug goodbye. The embrace is the new handshake for a modern generation.
Last Friday night at UNO’s basketball home opener at the new Ralston Arena we sat near what we guessed was a UNO women’s sports team. Whenever another member of the team arrived everyone squealed and then hug-hug-hug-hug-hug-hug — blocking our view of the game. Not everyone who showed up was met with the same level of enthusiasm, but everyone got a hug.
I get it with women, but now even guys hug each other hello. A few weeks ago I was sitting at Jake’s with a young couple when an acquaintance of theirs walked up to the booth. Both bolted up and welcomed the guy with a hug — wife and husband. And this wasn’t a hand-shake-pat-on-the-back bro hug either, it was the kind of hug the guy probably gave his mother before leaving the house after last Thanksgiving dinner.
I don’t know if I’m ever going to get used to the hugging trend. Hugging always has been completely alien to me. I can’t even remember ever hugging my dad, nor ever wanting to. Even when I was a little boy — maybe 5 or 6 — my dad gave me a stern handshake goodnight as he sat in his orange recliner watching All in the Family. I never thought twice about it.
No doubt my self-conscious fear of invading someone’s personal space was inflamed having been raised Catholic and attending mass for years where all were forced to shake hands with perfect strangers. It happens about three-quarters of the way through the ceremony, the priest proclaims “Peace be with you, now offer each other a sign of peace.” I always found this moment awkward and strange until I turned to my brother who would say, “Slap my hand, black soul man.”
My hug draught continued through high school and into college. Let’s face it, no one hugged anyone in the ‘80s. The only time you saw any hugging going on was at crash sites or televised tragedies. Even couples rarely hugged in public, and if they did, it was more of a possession ritual — keep your meat hooks off my man. That sort of thing. The only other people I remember publicly hugging in the ‘80s were gay friends, but even then it was only the most flamboyant of the tribe living out some sort of inner Liza moment.
That said, not getting a hug can be just as awkward. Whenever the hugs are going around, I still end up getting an extended hand instead. Even at funerals and weddings. Which is fine, because there’s nothing more awkward than a half-hearted don’t-get-the-wrong-idea hug from someone you barely know, the kind of hug where both parties are acting as if the other might be contagious.
I guess us non-huggers just naturally put out a “don’t touch me” vibe. A work acquaintance from out of town recently visited our office. When I bumped into her in the hallway there was the ol’ “Hey! I didn’t know you were in town” surprised smile. She’s a classic hugger. I could see her about to lean forward and grab me and then, just as abruptly, stop and put her arms back at her sides like a frightened penguin. No hug for me.
A few minutes later, three coworkers walked by — including a young guy — and one at a time each got a welcome embrace. I could feel her unspoken guilt about gypping me of my hug as I stood there with my arms crossed.
The only place I can remember getting a genuine hug from a guy was at O’Leaver’s, Omaha’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll drunk tank. One night at a show, a musician who I’ve known for years walked up and draped himself over me. “TMac, bro, good to see you,” he slurred. Obviously his brotherly affection had more to do with the drugs and booze he’d consumed an hour earlier, but I didn’t mind. My wasted friend continued to hang on long past a normal bro hug until he eventually slid off and draped himself over someone else. I found him later passed out by the Big Buck Hunter video game.
No doubt this “hugs as welcome” trend is a generational thing, and I’m showing that I’m of an older generation. I’m going to have to get used to it, like when clerks at convenient stores began calling me “sir” a couple years ago. I hated it; I still do. I’m not a sir. I’m a “man” or “dude,” just like you, pal. Instead, they see the gray hair tucked under my ball cap; they want to show respect, and I can’t fault them for that.
No one wants to get older, but before you know it, there you are, standing in line while someone is passing out hugs, waiting for your handshake.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.