I have a confession… I’m a hugger.
The thing is, I never made a conscious decision to become said ‘hugger’. Rather my hugging is a by-product of having grown up in an era when it was standard protocol to hug and kiss relatives, close friends and, indeed, even strangers regardless of whether you wanted to or not. Indeed it was considered ‘manners’.
Fast forward 40 years though and I have found that this hugging thing of mine has spilled over into the workplace. Yes, I am ‘that’ person. The one that leans forward, arms spread and pulls you in for body to body contact. Despite the potential heat, sweaty armpits, that we are virtual strangers or that we’re standing in a Minister’s office. And no, I am not alone. My workplace is full of ‘huggers’.
To be clear, it’s not that I hug every person I see, every day. (Because that would be weird…) But if I haven’t seen you for months, expect a hug. Depending on how well I know you, it might be a loose embrace, a bear hug or just a friendly peck on the cheek with my hand on your shoulder.
But that’s all about to stop. I’ve reached a professional juncture in which I realise I can no longer afford to hug. It might seem rash, after all I am about to change a lifelong habit that is technically about giving warmth…. but therein, my friends and mutual huggers, rests the problem. My warmth is often misinterpreted in the workplace as softness, which in turn is considered weakness. I am not the shark, I am the dolphin. And dolphins, it appears, do not get promoted or taken seriously. Even if, frankly, we are brilliant at our jobs.
And so it is with regret that with the exception of a few colleagues who are also friends, and fortunately not in my line of management (in either direction), the hug has to go.
Ok, ok, brakes on. I know what you are thinking. The fact that I hug is not why I haven’t been promoted. Well dah, of course that’s not the reason. But my warmth is a lens through which I am viewed and in some circles we have yet to reach a level of awareness in which emotional intelligence and the ability to think strategically are not mutually exclusive. We have yet to reach the point in which we understand that a greeting is not the sum total of a person’s ability to perform under pressure, distil critical information from detail and advance high level objectives.
The hug also has to go because it has been brought to my attention that there are still women (and men) out there who perceive the hug as a tool that we can use to get ahead – i.e. they see it as a sexual power-play. I wish I was joking. I wish that we were beyond such thinking, but it’s evident we’re not (Hello, Donald Trump). But my hug is not the equivalent of a man giving the spread eagle in a meeting. I’m not hugging you to remind you that I have breasts, or to arouse you in any way, or in an attempt to use my body to climb the ladder.
Of course, having earned a reputation as a hugger, I now have some work to change the way I am greeted. I have to be on the front foot with the handshake or maintain enough distance that the hug isn’t a possibility. I aware that constantly shaking hands with people I know well will likely become awkward after a time (in times like this I wish we could just embrace the Japanese bow), so I expect there will be a lot of warm verbal greetings… I might even try a back slap (OK probably not).
I’m confident that there will come a day when I can hug again. The internet is full of images of powerful women and men hugging each other – sometimes awkwardly, sometimes heart to heart, sometimes as a formality, sometimes in shared grief or solidarity. The difference between these women and men and me, however, is that they have already consolidated their power. I’m not saying you’ll have to wait for me to be the leader of the free world before I hug you again, but until then, please don’t be offended when I shake your hand.