Forget four-letter words. I can withstand most swears, even inventive ones, with the steely composure of a seasoned dock worker.
It’s a single four-word phrase that, when uttered by a new acquaintance, has been known to evoke a fierce visceral reaction of the negative variety.
“Sorry, I’m a hugger.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love a solid hug from someone I know and trust. If you’re my mom, dad, auntie Judy, or friend Cherie (quality huggers, every one), you’re coming in hot with open arms, and I’m on board. My mom’s hugs crescendo into a tight squeeze that takes my breath away for just a second, her palms like shock paddles sending a warm wave through my ribs. It’s nice.
When faced with a new person, though, I usually think a hug feels…inappropriate. I haven’t agreed to this level of intimacy; I’m not ready to clash collar bones. And yet, here we are.
Historically, I haven’t responded to surprise hugs well. I am all too aware that in a room full of people, sending a would-be hugger into a public retreat of rejection would be Very Awkward. So, I relent. More than once, I’ve leaned in rigidly for a shoulders-only hug, the lower half of my body thrown behind me at such an angle that I may as well be balancing a champagne glass on it and trying to break the Internet.
And, for a long time, my tendency to freeze came with a certain level of guilt. I almost bought into the hype that to be introverted is to be cold. It was only time, and maturity, and a bit (read: a lot) of research about introversion that gracefully delivered me to the conclusion that I’m not an ice queen.
My exploratory process is what I like to call the Falling Down a Rabbit Hole Method. What it lacks in efficiency it more than makes up for in satisfying my Enneagram Type 5 “Investigator” personality. When it came to dissecting my own anti-hug platform, I devoured things like this piece in the Huffington Post, written by a woman who sounded a lot like me—she similarly realized over time that her sometimes-preference to keep a safe distance from people was not a personality flaw. I read a lot of blogs like this. They were unscientific but entirely validating.
I also found that some cultures are simply less apt at fostering and rewarding introversion and privacy over extroversion. The idea that common demonstrative greetings in the US are merely a cultural tradition wasn’t new to me, but being reminded of it in print was still reassuring. I began to double-down on the belief that I’m not dysfunctional; I would just prefer to say hello with a wai.
I even dove into articles distilling the science behind introverted brains. As I marinated my noggin in these newfound facts, I felt a weight fall off my shoulders, and I developed a new sense of self. I realized that some combination of physiology and psychology has made me selective about social interactions and physical contact—and that’s okay.
Once I became less self-conscious about my aversion to spontaneous hugs and started talking about it to people I knew, a few things happened. First, I found out I wasn’t alone. Some of the friendliest, warmest, Most Likely to Be a Hugger people I knew responded to my revelation that “I’m not really a hugger” with “Oh my God, me neither! It’s so invasive!” Secondly, I found out that even rabid huggers were much more receptive to backing off than I expected. Once I talked about preferring to reserve hugs for people in my inner circle, they typically gave an understanding reply and let me initiate future hugs.
All of this is to say I’m relieved to have found that I was putting too much pressure on myself to conform to a social norm. Most people don’t mind that I greet them with a smile and a handshake or a friendly wave instead of a hug. But more importantly, I now don’t mind being more open and authentic in my own way.
In giving myself permission to hold back from hugging every person I meet, I’ve noticed that I am usually warmer when I first greet or bid farewell to someone. Because I am not tensing up for an impending full-body high five, I feel more at ease. And that changes the temperature of the entire interaction. Of course, sometimes the energy of a new friend feels very welcoming, and I break all these rules and happily advance toward their outreached arms. But it’s important to give myself the go-ahead to stretch out my hand for a shake instead when a hug is not what I am feeling at the moment.
I don’t think we introverts should beat ourselves up about perceiving personal space as sacred space. It doesn’t make us frosty. On the contrary, it makes us more thoughtful about and therefore genuine with our affection. We’re not love-depriving freaks.
Which is what I will remind myself the next time a friend of a friend of a friend starts with “Sorry, I’m a hugger.”