Embraceable you: The pros and cons of hugging at the office

handshake with airplane in background
While handshakes are always a good policy, more creative staffers are coming in for the clinch. (manfeiyang/Getty)

Do you keep people at arm’s length—especially at the office? Many Americans prefer a personal distance, which is the space between colleagues during a normal conversation, of about 20 to 36 inches—and Britons are just as standoffish, if not more so. Indeed, while we all may hug and kiss our friends and family with comparative abandon, the BBC reported on July 20 that, in business settings, a handshake is often preferred.

That said, you can’t always get what you want. Referring to a survey conducted last year by The Creative Group, based in Menlo Park, California, the British news outlet said that more and more professionals are coming in for the clinch—not the fist bump.

Indeed, more than half of advertising and marketing respondents to that poll said that hugging coworkers is at least somewhat common in the United States, up from 30% five years ago. It’s a different story when meeting clients: More than three-quarters of respondents said they rarely, if ever, greet these business contacts with an embrace.

The upside is greater informality; but there's a downside, too, BBC reported. And that’s the feeling of greater, but unwanted, intimacy.

A separate study conducted by Hart Research Associates of Washington, D.C., in 2016 on sexual harassment in the U.S. fast-food industry found that more than one-quarter of female workers (27%) believed that they had been hugged or touched inappropriately.

Deborah Wallsmith, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, told BBC that the discomfort with personal contact can be affected by nuances, relationships, and personal preferences.

"The least offensive is the one armed side-by-side hug, where the huggers are standing next to each other, and extend their adjacent arms around each other's waist.

"The most objectionable is the full-frontal squeeze that goes on forever."

She added that she "feels uncomfortable getting hugged by former professors and former bosses."

Kara Deringer, a business coach from Alberta, Canada, told the news outlet that hugging can be positive, because it creates connections, but "Be careful. I have seen lots of misunderstandings.

"I currently work in a team, and we're huggers. But there are those who will courageously say 'I'm not a hugger'."

Deringer told the network that she advises either asking people for a hug, or paying very close attention to body language. "If they reach out their hand? I've got it, they're hand-shaker or a high-fiver."

And she said, "It's also about social intelligence. I won't hug someone I just met.”