by Jan Beecher
"My sister called it the 'one armed hug,'" says Marni. "One arm around the back and nothing else touches. But then, we're from rural Alberta."
As though that excuses everything.
Keith tells me he's from Hornby Island, one of the Gulf Islands: "We hug all the time." Sheri, from Saskatchewan, says she's a no-contact kind of person. Pat is a New Brunswick Acadian; you'd be hard pressed to get a handshake from her, much less an embrace.
Canadian hug protocol seems to be as varied as our spaghetti sauce recipes. Some of us hug all the time, while others feel it's an invasion of their personal space. So I decided to conduct a little survey: I sent a questionnaire to 45 contacts across the country — friends, instructors, and business acquaintances. I wondered: in a country as regionally and culturally various as ours, is there such a thing as an all-Canadian hug?
And the answer is: maybe. Apparently the one thing a lot of us have in common is a certain hesitation before we make the move. "I would like to hug, but I rarely initiate," says Sandra. "I let [the other person] make the call." Richard agrees: "I watch for body language and don't usually make the first move." I ask Tom, from Winnipeg, if he considers himself a hugger. "Not really," he says, "but I do it."
Foreign observers are on to us. "Canadians are thought to be quite modest and reserved when making introductions for the first time," advises the U.K. website Travel Etiquette. "When meeting, a firm handshake is the best option. Try to avoid being overly familiar and making too much body contact, such as hugging or back slapping. This is usually set-aside for close friends and family."
Mike is a case in point. He has a shaved head, 14–inch biceps and a tattoo running from wrist to shoulder. Snuggly isn't really his way. When he meets an old friend from work he employs the "man hug": shake hands, bump shoulders and, if they're real close, slap the back. However, he also has a 21–year old son he hugs all the time – they're both comfortable with it.
Still, not all of us are ambivalent or situational huggers. Take my friend Andrea. "The fact that I woke up this morning and that each and every other person I come into contact with today awoke as well is something that needs to be celebrated, not taken for granted," she tells me, then beams wholesomely. "How about a hug?" Andrea is another Gulf Islander.
Regionally speaking, my west coast associates seem to have a much freer hug habit than those on the Prairies. Sheri, from Saskatchewan, tells me that, despite wind chill factors in the minus 30 range, she reserves her hugs for the elderly and children under 10, "and for people from other provinces that hug you before you can get out of their way." Sheri adds that she is considered a little too affectionate by some of her colleagues. Gwen, also from Saskatchewan, considers herself a non-hugger.
Farther east, Patty, in Mississauga, hugs generously, "because it feels nice." In Quebec, "We don't give bear hugs, that's not appropriate," says Colleen, "But you do, upon seeing someone, come up and kiss them on either cheek." Ah . . . the French.
My friend Kathleen is from New Brunswick. She's a hugger and tells me, "I have a brother who would hug me for five minutes if I'd stay that long!" But wait — Pat is also from New Brunswick and she won't even shake hands. All that mushy stuff isn't her style.
Why so many differences?
Social anthropologist Dr. Colleen McVeigh, a researcher and professor at Vancouver Island University, tries to enlighten me. "Because we are from diverse family backgrounds, and diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds," she tells me, "it does make for uncertainty when you become an adult, entering into a larger world, as to what is appropriate."
"In anthropology we talk about high contact cultures and low contact cultures," she continues. "For instance, in Chinese culture they don't hug. Parents and children do not hug. Men and women do not hug in public. So there's not a lot of physical, intimate contact."
Many Asian cultures, it turns out, go largely hugless. Learning this, I think about all my Asian friends I have wrapped my arms around. Cringing, I phone Cindy, who is Korean, to ask if she's a hugger. "Actually, I was adopted by a Canadian family when I was four," she says. "I'm not much of a hugger though." Oh, dear.
"Latin communities are often depicted as high contact," McVeigh notes. "People hug, people touch, men kiss each other and hug each other. Italians, in greeting each other, touch each other on the shoulders then they give kisses on both cheeks. In France they do the same thing. Spanish do the same thing."
So why are Canadians standoffish? Maybe we just aren't sure who is going to accept a hug. When asked how long you should know a person before you hug them, about a quarter of my respondents gave me a set time, ranging from "immediately" to "a year." The rest said, as Keith did, "It depends on the vibe." Body language, instinct, comfort level, call it what you will: most Canucks seem to case out a situation before they make their move.
"Human beings are cued to read body language," says McVeigh. "We read it very well and we read it quite unconsciously.
"Hugging is an expression of emotional intimacy in a physical way. Those are things we learn, that are enculturated at a very, very young age, and [Canadians] come from very diverse backgrounds. Depending on what that background is, we're going to learn different modes of behavior.
"What I think that means, as being Canadian per se, is that you don't know how you can behave with a person until you get to know them better. Or you can assume you behave in a certain way and then you find out you can't or you can or . . . it just depends, right?"
Which can be awkward. So what do we have? Hesitation.
Boy meets girl. Boy hugs girl. Is it sexual? Most of the folks in my little survey said a between-genders hug should only last a few seconds, but a few insisted a hug isn't sexual; wandering hands and a tongue in the ear is sexual, but you can hug as long as you want.
Anthropologically speaking, they're right. The hug is part of our ancient selves.
"Looking at primates — primate behavior, period — all primates need physical affection to cope well. They did studies on that and we know that children who are not touched don't thrive psychologically," says McVeigh. One investigation observed newborn infants placed in incubators: those who were touched more, even through incubator walls, healed faster than those who didn't.
In another study, orphaned Rhesus monkeys were given two replacement parents: one was made of metal and wire and the other was made of soft, fuzzy material. A bottle was attached to the cold metal parent for the babies to feed from. The fuzzy parent had no bottle. The infants still went to the fuzzy, more huggable parent when they were scared or startled.
"It's not just a human trait, this is a primate trait," says McVeigh. "[The hug] is really wired into our pre-cognitive, pre-language brain."
Perhaps as Canadians we need context. "We say it's okay to hug your kids and it's okay to hug your lover," says McVeigh, "but where you hug them, and in front of whom you hug them, changes for every individual."
Another consideration, she points out, is the status of the huggers. "If the people in power are the huggy ones, it's more likely that's who the minority will start to emulate and not the other way around." A child will emulate a huggy parent. A boss is free to create a hug-comfortable work environment.
Our own noble leader, Stephen Harper, however, didn't hug his son on the first day of school. The message? That's not the sort of thing that's done in public.
No wonder we hesitate.