I wasn’t born a hugger and did not grow up in a huggy-kissy culture. Dominated by Norwegian immigrants and their families, our town and state are famous for a lack of demonstrative affection (and sense of humor). When it came to hugging in business, I learned as a grown up when it was and when it wasn’t appropriate.

I am happy to say I learned hugging has its time and place. Over the years, I also learned it takes emotional intelligence to know which time and what place.

When it comes to hugging in business, I have three rules:

  1. Know the culture.
  2. Pay attention to the other person’s vibes.
  3. Above all, avoid violating the other’s personal space.

Know the Culture

While mothers hugged children when I was growing up, I remember only one kiss on the cheek between my parents. It wasn’t until I moved to Virginia I learned I lacked a natural tendency to hug. Almost everybody hugged me–including total strangers! It didn’t matter if it was in a social situation or even at the office.

At first, my response was to back up. Eventually, I figured out hugging was the culture and began to hug back (a little). By the time I left Virginia, however, I was a certified hugger. Not deep hugs, you understand and never to total strangers, but a brief, warm show of affection turned out to be fairly painless.

Pay Attention to the Other People’s Vibes

I left Virginia to attend law school in Kansas. By now, I was the one initiating the hugs, and it took me awhile to figure out these folks were backing up! Then, it dawned on me; I was back to more distance and less demonstrative affection. I was in law school in No Hugging, Kansas, three years, and the truth is there wasn’t time or energy leftover for hugging.

Then I moved to Southern California. Here was a culture where many people came from somewhere else, so anything goes. In many situations, it was hugging expected–and lots and lots of air kisses (Defined as lips puckered, leaning towards the other and saying, “mwaaaa!”; also known as the “Hollywood Hello”).

Oh yes, there was plenty of overkill. Too many “mwaaas!” when the air kisser’s roving eyes betrayed that they would have preferred to be with someone more important. In other situations, I could tell right away that hugs were not the order of the day. Instead, a handshake worked just fine. This situation notwithstanding, I was glad to land in a world where demonstrating affection could be okay in some cases. It is a kind of lovely reassurance of our humanness.

Avoid Violating People’s Personal Space

How one touches another in business is, of course, critical. Since individuals and cultures have different unspoken rules about personal space—especially how much comfort there is with physical closeness– caution is always a wise decision.

One of the standard protocols when caring for people in institutions is called the residential hug—off to the side, so there is no torso contact. I employed this hug-type many times in business.

However, not everyone knows the residential hug or even good sense about what is appropriate in business. A guy who hugs too long pulls me too close or lets his hand slip one inch below my waist doesn’t get hugged back. One highly annoying woman that I saw once a week always insisted on hugging me, and then holding me in place while she adjusted something with my collar or my hair or my jewelry. After the fourth or fifth time, I gently took her hands and put them back at her side. “You know,” I said, “I think it’s better if I dress myself, but thanks for your offer to help.” I was a bit concerned I’d offended her, but she took it in her stride, and never adjusted anything on me again.

There you have it, my quick guide on hugging that took me decades to figure out. If you know the culture and read the situation, you are likely to be fine–especially if you employ the workplace friendly residential hug that has little chance of invading personal space.

What are your guidelines for when to hug or not to hug in business?