A female friend—we’ll call her Fran—recently called Mollie in a panic.
“I’m worried I crossed a boundary at work,” she said. “Several times a year, I meet with a group at a hotel or conference venue for a few days to plan a big conference. The group members aren’t my direct colleagues since they work at different organizations. I give everyone a hug goodbye when we leave, since we’re friendly and I know it will be a few months before I see them again. At our most recent meeting, there were several new people. As we said goodbye at the end of the week, I hugged the people I already knew. But then I felt awkward not giving a hug to the new people, so I went in to hug them as well. Now I’m worried that I was too forward.”
Sound familiar? This is a common experience in the digital age when work communication has been brought to a whole new level of intimacy. Messages from your manager might include emojis or arrive via text or Facebook Messenger. People you haven’t actually met in person feel like they could be actual friends.
So how do you know where to draw the line? We spent three years studying these kinds of challenges for our book, No Hard Feelings: Emotions at Work (And How They Help You Succeed).
First off, there are three levels of work relationships to consider, and each has a different hugging norm.
There are the people you work with every day, like your teammates. We’ll call them your “day-to-days.” It would be a lot to hug these people hello or goodbye because you see them so frequently. Even if you’re leaving or coming back from vacation, it’s fine to just say or Slack them your greeting. And when it comes to your direct report (or someone else junior to you) or boss, unless you’re very close, a good general rule is to forget about hugs all together.
Then there are people who you see less often, like colleagues who work in other offices, clients, or partners at other organizations. We’ll call these people your “occasionals.” It’s more normal to hug these people simply because you don’t see them that often (as was the case in Fran’s situation). However, there is a huge variance in people’s comfort level with hugging. Mollie has noticed that some of her clients, for example, are huggers, and some are definitely not. The clients who are huggers tend to view Mollie as a friend and partner, in addition to a consultant. The clients who are not huggers tend to view her as an advisor and prefer to keep a professional boundary by not hugging.
Lastly, there are people who you’ve just met or will only be seeing once. We’ll call these people your “newlymets.” For example, Mollie often facilitates workshops for extended client teams. She knows she will only meet these workshop participants once, and so it would be weird to hug them hello or goodbye.
The problem in Fran’s case was that she was interacting with people from two different levels at once: the “occasionals” and the “newlymets.” The norms for both of these groups are different.
So, what to do? There are three good options:
- You can hug the “occasionals” and offer a handshake to the “newlymets.” It’s unlikely that someone you just met will be offended that you’re not hugging them.
- You can wait to take your cue from the other person. As you’re going down the meeting-each-other line, don’t launch in for either a hug or handshake, but watch the other person’s body language to see what they’re going for. If you don’t watch carefully, this can result in the awkward “hugshake,” which is what we call the jumbled mismatch of limbs when one person goes in for a hug and one goes in for a handshake. (If this happens, don’t stress—it’s not the end of the world and will most likely be forgotten in an hour.)
- If you really want to hug the “newlymets” for consistency’s sake, you should acknowledge it. You can say something like, “I know we just met, but I’m a hugger. Is it OK if I hug you as well?” This gives the other person a bit of a heads up and the opportunity to grant their permission (or not) before you go in for a hug.
One more note we’ll make is that some people don’t want to hug for reasons beyond not knowing you—because of personal space or sensory issues, or because of certain traumas, for example.
So even if you love hugging, make sure you’re aware of the other person’s body language and are giving them the option to say no.
Remember that it’s always better to err on the side of more formal. When in doubt, offer a handshake.