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Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Handle a Hugger

Negotiating personal space takes finesse when dealing with the overly affectionate.
Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Handle a Hugger
Image credit: Luxy Images | Getty Images

Dear Jacqueline,

I’m uncomfortable in situations where some of my clients and colleagues want to hug or plant a big kiss on me when we see each other. I want to be professional, but don’t want to take the greeting past a business-like handshake. And most of all, I don’t want to offend anyone. What are the rules when it comes to hugging or kissing in the workplace?

Signed, Hug Me Not

Dear Hug Me Not,

Handshaking is the universal business greeting and should be used in all business situations. However, there are even times when handshaking can be denied. The exceptions to this rule are illness and injury.

If you are sick, or have a bodily injury to your hand, arm or shoulder, you can simply say something like, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m just getting over a cold and I’d prefer not to shake hands." This is generally understood – and appreciated – by the other party. Speaking of illness, always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer in your purse, pocket or desk drawer, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands frequently, especially during cold and flu season.

Refusing to shake someone’s hand for any other reason, however, runs the risk of insulting the other person. Now that we’ve established the rules for handshaking, let’s move on to other forms of bodily contact greetings.

Related: Why I Give Everyone Hugs -- Even Clients

Huggers

If you know someone is a hugger or toucher, or you see them coming in for the hug, reach out and extend your hand first. Cut them off at the pass, so to speak. This gives a clear signal that you want to connect with a handshake only, especially if done with a warm smile, and will keep the moment from becoming awkward.

If the person continues to approach, you can always use your other hand to grasp their arm or elbow in a friendly grip as you shake their hand. This stiffer-arm approach also helps create a barrier. But beware of those who sneak in for a side hug. They can sometimes catch you off guard.

Related: 4 'Shark Tank' Stars on How to Shake Hands Like You Mean Business

The Air Kisser

Once a popular greeting in old movies, people still offer up air kisses, especially in other countries including France, Italy and Spain. Often the air kiss is accompanied with a handshake, but since no actual lip contact is made, it is less uncomfortable than say, a real kiss. Your cheek simply touches the person’s cheek as you make a soft smacking sound.

If you’re not a seasoned air kisser, go with the flow on this one. Let the other person be the initiator. Don’t be surprised if you get two, or even three kisses, depending on the culture. Having lived in South Florida for many years, I became quite comfortable with the air kiss, especially among friends.

Related: 4 Reasons You Should Consider Kissing a Journalist

The Kisser

In countries other than the United States, cheek kissing is a universal form of greeting. For example, in some Arab, Latin American and European countries, it is common to find women and men kissing on the cheek when they meet or say goodbye. In North America, hugging, kissing and air kissing is usually reserved for more intimate relationships rather than business ones.

If you are truly uncomfortable with either the air kiss or the wet kiss, use the same hand-extending gesture as with the hugger, and lean ever-so-slightly back instead of forward when shaking hands to keep your upper body at a distance.

Related: How to Avoid Cultural Missteps When Doing Business With Other Countries

Offer a Smile

A smile is a language everyone understands, and even the most awkward of situations can often be smoothed over by a sincere smile. If someone prefers to keep their hands in their pockets or by their side, and simply nods, respect their choice, and nod and smile in return.

In conclusion, kissing and hugging in the workplace can be awkward, for many. In order to set the tone and show your confidence, always try to be the first one to initiate a handshake, regardless of whether you are a man or women in the business world. Always stand when shaking someone’s hand. This shows respect for the other person as well as for yourself.

If you have a business etiquette question, email Jackie@EtiquetteExpert.com.