Embracing the new reality: ask before you touch others

It pays to ask whether people are comfortable with a hug before presuming they are. PHOTO: GETTY...
It pays to ask whether people are comfortable with a hug before presuming they are. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Hugs are free, but they're not for everybody, writes Gina Barreca. 

just got back from my weekly trip to the local supermarket. I usually count off the number of items I get, but this week, I also counted hugs.

Hugs are free, no purchase required. One came from a woman I know from the post office, one from a man who retired from teaching, one from a friend who works at the store's deli counter (she took a brief break), one from someone who introduced herself as a reader of the columns and one from a Facebook friend (suddenly live and in person) in the parking lot.

I'm tactile, and touch is one way of the ways I communicate. As is the case with many of my tribe - ethnic types of working-class origin who are too old for work-study and too young for cremation - I'm a sleeve-patter, a wrist-grabber and cheek-kisser. I live in Little Old Lady Land, and five hugs at a familiar venue is fairly typical.

I understand, however, that for many people, touch can be not only a foreign language but one capable of transmitting only aggressive, dehumanising and scary messages.

About a dozen years ago, I had a student who explained to me she hated being touched. It made her cringe, no matter what its intention. She taught me to ask whether people were comfortable with a hug or even a warm handshake before presuming they were. It was a boundary I needed to see more clearly and a lesson I needed to learn.

So while I continue to offer hugs to students who seem to welcome them, I never foist them upon anyone. I ask first. If you're crying and eating cold pizza in my office, explaining your troubles and seeking advice from me and from the other students who are always there, the gesture seems as reasonable as offering a tissue.

But not everyone interprets it as generosity.

My pal, essayist Barry Dougherty, for example, wishes that "the people going in for the hug would recognise that I'm broadcasting absolute fear from my frozen stance and deer-in-headlights expression, and that this hug of theirs will ruin my day and so perhaps rethink their lovely gesture and just buy me a drink instead."

Kristina Dolce, a teacher whose middle-school kids attach themselves to her like Velcro, knows that even invitations for physical expression need to be framed fairly: "If you're asking with the presumption of a `yes,' you're not really asking."

That presumption of acceptance is probably where Joe Biden, a politician I have often (if not always) admired, made his mistake. Biden probably imagined his good intentions were sufficiently transparent and that he would always get the benefit of the doubt, even if he stumbled.

A line often attributed to Mark Twain but actually written by Oliver Wendell Homes jun, states: "Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked."

What Biden missed was that increasing numbers of women are recognising that when we were on the receiving end of opprobrious touches, we were meant to define them as "harmless", as if harm was defined by the one inflicting the wound and not by the one wounded. We were taught the unwanted touching, the unsought intimacy, the slimy grasp and the salacious innuendos were to be sloughed off as stumbles, even when our own deepest instincts told us they were deliberate and malicious.

After enough kicks, even a stumble will raise a growl. That, I believe, is the noise Biden is hearing.

I hope hugging and other expressions of affection and connection remain non-punishable offences, but we need to discuss them as well as discussing other ways we express even our cheerful responses. As my friend Elizabeth Ruppel counsels, "Try complimenting female colleagues and friends the way you would your male colleagues and friends. If you wouldn't tell Bob his eyes are nice or his outfit is cute, don't say that to Bonnie. And if a woman isn't your significant other, don't guide her into a room with your hand on the small of her back. Women are adult, autonomous humans who don't need to be led and protected in public."

This adult and autonomous human being opens her arms to hugs in hallways and produce aisles but knows you might prefer a wave, a smile, a handshake or, if you're Barry, a beverage. When we see each other, I'll make sure to ask.

 - Gina Barreca is an author and distinguished professor of English literature.


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