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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

‘I’m a Hugger’: What to Say to Establish Physical Boundaries in the Workplace

We'll laugh about this awkward interaction one day

Woman holding up hands
Photo courtesy of Drew Hays

You may have noticed that the internet has declared war on social practices that we should put behind us in the workplace. Many women are making everything from toxic relationships to energy-draining jobs a thing of the past, and I’m all for it! During a recent interaction, I was reminded of one thing that I plan to put behind me for good: forcible hugging in professional settings.

Hugging is a common social practice, even at work. Just last year, The Creative Group found that up to 35 percent of hiring managers surveyed reported that it was “very common" for them to hug a coworker. Similarly, 23 percent reported that it was “very common” to hug a client or business contact. As I thought about their findings, I was reminded of all the unwanted hugs I received at networking events, career fairs, business meetings, and other work functions. Even though the data suggests that many people embrace hugging at work, it doesn’t work for everyone.

Whether you’re in a meeting, at a conference, or even at a company retreat, you are not obligated to hug those who deem themselves “huggers.” In fact, as our workplaces continue to focus on how women are treated in the workplace, you should feel emboldened to set your own physical boundaries—and expect them to be respected.

Still, you may be asking yourself how to avoid a hug without appearing rude or unprofessional. Here are some responses you can use when you’re met with an unwelcome hug in a professional setting.

Scenario 1

What to do

Intercept the hug. If someone approaches you with a hug you don’t want, politely take one of their hands, introduce a handshake, and smile.

What to say

It’s so good to see you! Just because you don’t want to be hugged doesn’t mean that you’re not happy to see someone. You can create healthy boundaries and still express the same enthusiasm about seeing your colleagues.

Scenario 2

What to do

Don’t hug back. You’re probably used to returning the hug, so this one may take a bit of practice. However, not hugging back sends a strong message: You do not have my consent. Remember, you do not have to go along with anything that you did not consent to.

What to say

I’m not a hugger, but I love a good handshake! This response keeps your boundaries intact while offering an alternative that is just as friendly and professional. If you’d like, you can even do the double handshake, which involves cupping the other person’s hand with both of your hands. It’s endearing without crossing any uncomfortable lines.

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Scenario 3

What to do

Keep your distance. There is nothing more awkward than a hug that’s delivered from 2 feet away. Don’t be afraid to take a step back if you feel an uninvited hug coming.

What to say

This one speaks for itself! Maintaining a comfortable distance can let huggers know that you like your personal space, which may thwart their attempts to hug you.

And if that doesn’t work? Refer to the suggestion below.

Scenario 4

What to do

Lean into it. I know what you’re thinking. Why lean into a hug I don't want? Well, because sometimes you find yourself enveloped in a hug before you even realize it. Huggers don’t usually mean any harm, but they tend to move quickly. So, if you find yourself in an embrace you didn’t ask for and feel comfortable hugging back, go for it. But, use this as a teachable moment for your counterpart. Let them know how you’d like to be approached moving forward.

What to say

Thanks, but a handshake will do just fine next time. A response like this enables you to set a precedent for future encounters. This is a great way to teach people how you want to be greeted. Be polite yet assertive.

Each of these guidelines on what to do (and say) when setting boundaries with huggers can go a long way. Don’t hesitate to tweak the responses to make them work for you. The goal is to protect your personal space. While some people won’t be happy with your responses, others will learn to respect them. It takes time to create boundaries, but it’s worth it.

If you’re the hugger

That’s cool! We love hugs, too. It is possible to hug in the office. Just ask, Is it okay if I hug you? or something similar before you dive in. And if they say no? Know their response says nothing about you as a person. Laugh it off and say, Well, how about a firm handshake then! Easy breezy.

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