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To hug or not to hug

December 1, 2018

I love hugs. I like to give them, and I like to receive them. But it wasn’t always that way.

As a young man back in the 1950s, my Germanic upbringing taught me to be more reserved. A polite handshake and verbal salutation was the appropriate greeting, especially when greeting another man.

So what a huge shock it was for me, stepping off a train in the port of Veracruz, Mexico, in December 1958 to be greeted by a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, 6-foot-5 giant who gathered me up in a crushing bear hug, slapped me four times affectionately on the back and said, “Welcome!”

The man was the cousin of the friend with whom I was traveling, and he wanted me to know straightaway that he was my friend, too.

I felt a bit flustered and quite self-conscious about being embraced by another man. For a man to show his emotions, especially of great joy or deep sorrow, back then was considered to be unmanly. However, in the Mexican culture, an honest expression of true feelings was believed to be not only natural but desirable.

And so, I learned the Mexican “abrazo,” or bear hug. Soon it became second nature to me. My wife and I taught the custom to our children and grandchildren. And now not a one of them will enter or leave our presence without giving and receiving a huge hug. It’s an expressive way to say, “You are special.”

But now the custom of hugging has become suspect, insinuating that it may have a sexual intent. A 2016 study conducted by Hart Research Associates of Washington, D.C., on sexual harassment in the U.S. fast-food industry found that more than one-quarter of female workers (27 percent) believed that they had been hugged or touched inappropriately.

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

Carnegie Mellon University researchers report that hugging helps fight stress-induced illness. In a 2015 study, participants were tested on their susceptibility to the common cold after being exposed to the virus. It turned out that the people who received more hugs were less likely to get sick. The researchers’ conclusion: Hugging provides numerous health benefits.

If you’re looking for a great way to boost your immune system, reduce your stress, improve your sleep and even help cure depression, they say, you need to consider hugging.

The good news is that hugs have no side effects and require no prescription. What’s more, they’re free and can be given and received anywhere, at any time.

Kara Deringer, a business coach from Alberta, Canada, says hugging can be positive, because it creates connections, but “be careful.” Deringer advises either asking people for a hug or paying very close attention to body language.

“If they reach out their hand, they’re a hand-shaker or a high-fiver,” she says.

I heard recently that the Girl Scouts told their charges that they may refrain from giving holiday hugs to relatives if they didn’t feel comfortable in doing so. Well, I sure hope my relatives don’t hear about this and avoid giving me my holiday hug.

And that’s how I see it.

Larry Johnson is an author and motivational speaker. He is available for luncheon talks and workshop presentations. Contact him via email at larjo1@prodigy.net or visit his website at www.mexicobytouch.com

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