Hugging happens in many different situations.
What was the last situation in which you hugged someone?
There are a lot of different answers people can give to this question. For example, some people will say, “I hugged somebody else as a greeting recently,” and others will mention a heartfelt hug by their romantic partner. But hugging can also happen in sad situations, such as when trying to comfort someone after something bad happens.
Moreover, many of us also hug a lot of different people, from friends at a party to family and partners. Due to this high diversity of hugs, several blogs and entertainment websites have posted articles that characterize different types of hugs. Some of these often-mentioned types of hugs include “the awkward men hug,” “the romantic hug,” and “the side hug.”
In a recent scientific article (Ocklenburg et al., 2022), a team of international hugging researchers argued that categorizing hugs into such types is not optimal for psychological research (Note: I was the first author of the article).
On the one hand, these types of hugs may promote harmful gender stereotypes. Why should a hug between two men be more awkward than any other combination of genders? Surely, there are also awkward hugs involving people who identify as non-male.
On the other hand, categorizing hugs into types focuses very much on one dimension (e.g., the gender or the romantic status of the involved people). However, hugs have many more features that get lost when they are categorized like that. Therefore, we suggested that we can understand hugs better if we assess several features that characterize a hug.
Which features characterize a hug?
So, what are the most important features of a hug? In the post, we discuss the following ten features.
1. The number of involved people (or animals).
The first important feature of a hug is how many people are involved. Most hugs take place between two people, but sometimes people would also engage in self-hugging. Group hugging is also not uncommon, for example, in sports teams after a successful goal. Finally, some people would also hug their pets.
2. The duration of the hug.
People differ a lot in how long they hug. The average hug lasts a little longer than three seconds, but some people would hug for several minutes. Prior research has shown that the duration of the hug is linked to how people feel about it, with five- or ten-second hug being perceived as emotionally more positive than one-second hugs. Thus, a great hug would be around five to ten seconds long for most people. However, there is also an upper limit to the duration of a pleasant hug. For most people, hugging can get awkward after some time, so make sure not to hug too long.
3. The movement of different body parts.
A hug between two people can look very different – from only a slight touch to full-on body contact. Thus, it is important to characterize the movement of different body parts involved in a hug. These include the arms (are both arms used, or only one?) and the hands (where are they placed?) of all people involved in the hug.
Moreover, the upper body (do people show chest and/or shoulder contact?), the lower body (do people show leg contact, or is there a gap between their lower bodies?), and the head (is there some form of head contact, e.g., by kissing or putting the head on the shoulder of the other person?) show be considered. While one could assume that more body contact may be related to a more heartfelt hug or stronger emotions, this relation is not well understood scientifically. Likely, it is strongly modulated by preferences regarding personal space and getting touched.
4. The amount of pressure applied.
It has been suggested that greater pressure in a hug indicates more positive emotions towards the hugged person. Therefore, the tightness of the hug and the amount of pressure applied to the other person needs to be measured.
5. The sidedness of the hug.
It has been found that most people prefer hugging with the right arm leading the embrace and whether the left or the right arm is leading the embrace is an important feature of the hug. Research has shown that in emotionally significant situations, there is a leftward shift of the hugging arm, so sidedness is an important feature of a hug.
6. The relationship between the people that hug.
The relationship between the people that hug is another important feature of the hug. Most people that hug each other know each other beforehand, but not all. People who hug may be romantic partners, parents, children, members of the same family, or friends. However, sometimes we would also hug people we did not know beforehand, for example, when hugging somebody just introduced to us as a friend of a friend at a party.
Most of the time, we would have an emotionally positive relationship with the people we hug. Neutral relationships can also be the case, for example, when hugging somebody we barely know as a greeting at a social event. Sometimes, some people would even hug others with whom they have an emotionally negative relationship. For example, this may happen when hugging an estranged family member at a funeral due to the social pressure of another family member to do so.
7. The emotional significance of the situation.
Independent of the nature of the relationship between the hugging people, hugs can happen in emotionally positive situations (such as giving your partner a heartfelt hug), emotionally neutral situations (such as giving a brief hug as a greeting), and emotionally negative situations (such as hugging a mourning friend at a funeral to make them feel better).
8. The cultural background of the people that hug.
Which culture we come from strongly affects how we hug. Cultural conventions (e.g., how conservative or liberal society is) have strongly affected how much social touch like hugging people show. Younger and more liberal people in less conservative countries hug more than older people in conservative countries.
9. The personalities of the people that hug.
How long sometimes enjoys hugging another person strongly depends on their personality. People who show high interpersonal openness also enjoy social touch like hugging to a greater extent than less open people. In contrast, people that show high neuroticism have a lower preference to touch other people than less neurotic individuals.
10. The role of trauma.
Finally, it is important to consider that not all people enjoy being hugged by others. Some may have experienced trauma that can make a hug feel unpleasant or even trigger anxiety and panic. For example, patients with an anxiety disorder or PTSD have been shown to prefer a bigger personal space around them to feel comfortable than healthy controls. Thus, if somebody does not want to be hugged, it is highly important to respect that wish and keep in mind that it does not mean that the person does not like you.
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