From Handshake to Hug: The Art of the Shug in a Post #MeToo Environment

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By Ellen Ensher, Ph.D

From Handshake to Hug: The Art of the Shug in a Post #MeToo Environment

A year and a half ago, I wrote a LinkedIn post that discussed that awkward moment we have all faced when we have to make a split-second decision to shake or hug. Since then, a lot has changed especially now as we are in the wake of the #MeToo movement. While we use hugs to say hello, to say goodbye, and to show others we care it can sometimes be hard to gauge when the appropriate time to hug with other professionals.

Instances like your first day of work, the end of a productive business meeting, or even your last day of work can all put you at risk of experiencing those terrifying five seconds of uncertainty. Your decision can end in a hug that either goes completely fine or terribly wrong. In order to avoid that awkward moment, I made a list of rules to help avoid experiencing this uncertainty.

  1. Ladies first, usually.I think a woman hugging another woman is usually okay. I think, as a female professor and a mom, it might be more comfortable for me than for my male colleagues to hug a young female student for example. Even so, I am always careful to read the body language, consider my relationship, and the setting.
  2. Consider status and setting. During a semester full of award ceremonies, it is common for me to give and receive a lot of hugs. Nonetheless, I consider status each time. If your recipient is at a lower status, you start the shug. In a power position, I usually wait for them to initiate unless my read is we have have become close and have crossed the professional divide into friendship.
  3. Keep the hug loose. A professional shug is loose, open, and very public. It should never make anyone feel uncomfortable or come off as creepy.
  4. Verbally suggest or warn people, “Is it OK to give you a hug?” Or, “I want to give you a hug,” and notice how they react. One of my favorite things to do is give a verbal warning that a hug is incoming and then watch for their non-verbals. Many times the feeling is mutual, but a few times I have given the verbal warning and then backed off as I saw they looked uncomfortable.
  5. Consider the side hug.
  6. Make a mental note of who likes hugs. My doctor is a master of this skill. She figured out early on that I find it comforting to get a hug from my doctor. I doubt that she writes down in her notes, “Hug Ellen, she needs it.” But even if she did, kudos to her for caring enough to bother.
  7. When in doubt, go for the shake. You can never go wrong with a handshake. The shake is safe.

After considering these rules, some might be thinking when you can avoid an awkward situation completely by going straight for the shake, why shug? Even in professional settings, we can bring our whole selves to work, and a shug executed well can help us form deeper connections, build a positive culture, and communicate human warmth. Our University President, Tim Snyder, is a master at the shug. At graduation, every single graduate comes up and receives their diploma, a handshake, and a photo. But I noticed something interesting about President Snyder. He seemed to have an unerring knack for determining when to shake and when to hug or shug. As I looked around at my colleagues and students, I realized we had a lot of very happy people and appropriate shuggers. It seems like those who shug appropriately are a master at following these simple rules.

Nonetheless, a lot has changed since the beginning of the #MeToo movement and I would love to get feedback – do these rules still apply today? Or should we be professionals and never hug?