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May 12, 2010 Volume 10, Issue 19
 
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Unwanted Hugs from Strangers

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Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
A Hug-Free Zone poster

A Hug-Free Zone poster like the one described here. You can download this image as a PDF sized for US Standard Letter paper or sized for A4 paper.

As hugging gains increasing acceptance at work, two classes of unwanted hugs have become especially vexing. The first are unwanted hugs from well-meaning strangers. The second are ICBHs: Intercontinental Ballistic Hugs. ICBHs are usually delivered without warning, by people you might or might know, and who don't care one whit whether their hugs are welcome. I'll deal with ICBHs in a future issue.

The unwanted hug from a well-meaning stranger is problematic because the stranger means no harm. He or she probably wants to do what's expected, and simply misreads the situation. To avoid the awkward moment, we must make our preferences so clear that misreading becomes nearly impossible.

Here are three suggestions for deterring unwanted hugs by making your preferences clear. These tactics assume that you're meeting in an office or conference room. You might have to tailor these suggestions for other situations.

Post a "Hug-Free Zone" sign
You know, the word "Hugs" inside a red circle with a diagonal red line through it. Put it in a very prominent place. If people ask what the sign is about, you can refer them to the advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about swine flu prevention. By the way, this is quite serious medical advice, and it's probably good practice for anyone who deals with large numbers of strangers.
Say your good-byes across a desk, table, or other obstacle
When dealing with strangers, departure is For strangers, departure is
the moment of greatest
risk of unwanted hugs
the moment of greatest risk of unwanted hugs. By extending your hand for a handshake across a relatively insurmountable obstacle, such as a desk or conference room table, you effectively eliminate the hug as an option. In rare cases, your partner will sometimes try to walk around the obstacle for a hug despite your obvious reluctance. That's your cue to move in the other direction if you can. Choose your seat initially, or re-arrange your office furniture, to avoid being cornered.
If meeting in your office, call for re-enforcements
If you're meeting in your office privately, as for an interview, and you're coming to the end, refrain from indicating that the meeting is ending. Arrange in advance with your assistant or a colleague that you'll phone him or her with an appropriate code phrase such as "Hello Gene, OK." That's their cue to escort the visitor out, or to a next meeting as appropriate. Make the call while still seated, and let the arrival of your guest's escort be the first indication that the meeting is ending. Then stand, and say your good-byes across a desk or other obstacle.

The general principle here is that it's easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble — a useful approach in much of Life. I'll say good-bye now, without a hug. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Perils of Political Praise  Next Issue
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See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sComing June 3: Just Make It Happen
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Two hermit crabs in their snail shellsAnd on June 10: The Perils of Limited Agreement
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