I hate hugging people I don’t know, or even ones that I barely know, and I’m not the only one. Whether you value your personal space, are concerned about germs, or for any one of a million totally valid reasons just don’t want to have body contact with another person, there are a few things you can do to still come across as warm and welcoming without having your bubble breached.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Both Vanessa Van Edwards, the lead investigator at Science of People, and Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert who founded The Protocol School of Palm Beach, agree that the most important thing you can do is send the right signals to get the level of touch you’re comfortable with.
As the Other Person Approaches
This is the key time to use your body language to influence how the other person greets you. I’ve had plenty of awkward moments where someone went in for a hug at the same time as I tried for a handshake. Whitmore says to avoid this awkwardness, you should extend your hand first so it is clear what level of contact you’re welcoming.
Extend your hand first so it’s clear what level of contact you want. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
You can also use your handshake gesture to set personal space boundaries and indicate that your interlocutor should be an arm’s length away from you once you do settle into a conversation. If that doesn’t work (some people just have to lean in), Van Edwards suggests using your drink or bag to create a “block” between you and the other person to subtly show them that you need more space.
Use your bag to create a “block” between you and the other person. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
When You’re Greeting Someone
A firm handshake works in most situations, although it can come across as a bit formal at a party or BBQ. In a scenario like that, where a hug might be more the norm, Van Edwards recommends:
Raise your arm up and wave when someone approaches you. Soften the signal of not greeting them with the expected handshake or hug by warmly saying that you are excited to see them.
Wave when someone approaches to soften the signal of not greeting them with an expected hug. Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
If you’re not comfortable with even a handshake, you’ll need to use one of the few commonly accepted explanations: Being sick or injured. Whitmore explains, “Simply say, “I hope you don’t mind, but I am just getting over a cold and I’d prefer not to shake hands.”
Both Whitmore and Van Edwards highly encourage a genuine smile (one that extends all the way to your eyes) as a simple and effective way to come across as welcoming.
Saying Goodbye Gracefully
If you’ve had a great chat with someone, they might feel like you’re connected enough to go in for a hug. Just as you sent signals about how you wanted them to say hello to you, send signals about how you’d like to say goodbye. It helps if you’re the one to start things off with a specific reason for leaving. Then you can initiate the goodbye handshake or wave. I’ve also found that a quick shoulder squeeze and telling how wonderful it was to chat feels like a solid exit.
Rather than focusing on your anxiety, think about how you can show the other person you’re truly excited to meet and chat with them — smile often during conversation, make eye contact, get excited when you find a shared interest, make a reference to something they said earlier or create an inside joke between the two of you. By being deliberate in radiating genuine warmth to the other person, you counteract any coldness they may perceive from your lack of hugging or other body contact.