What's so hard about a hug?

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I grew up in a family of huggers but have found that not everyone is comfortable with physical contact

What is an acceptable physical expression of platonic affection? Somewhere between the hug and the handshake comes the fist-bump, a gesture I'm adopting more and more with friends who otherwise freeze as though encircled by squid tentacles instead of human arms.

What is so hard about giving and receiving a hug? Most human beings in their infancy instinctively seek physical contact. Like all primates, humans begin life expressing their emotions through touch. Toddlers and young children in their heart-melting innocence hold the hands of those they trust, kiss the lips of those they like and also violently pummel with their tiny fists any aggressors who dare to disorder their universe by stealing their crayons (the last example might possibly come from my childhood).

As we age, schools and playgrounds set boundaries for our lips and limbs. This is good because conflicts should be resolved without resorting to violence or retributive eating of crayons. This is also bad because gestures that many like me consider normal modes of conveying affection begin to acquire sexual overtones and to breach boundaries that did not exist when we were young enough to colour picture books in pre-school.

Touch is demonised, sexualised or trivialised in our society. The touch of men is especially suspect - and one understands why, given the sad truth that sexual predators exist - but in our rush to protect the innocent we penalise them as well. I believe it is entirely possible for men and women to interact physically and platonically in a manner that heals and feeds their souls but few of us are taught or shown this as we grow up.

Discount air-kisses or similar greetings which are facile and exchanged as easily as exhaled air. For those like me who belong to the super-tactile subset of humanity, a hug, a back rub or a spontaneous neck massage are expressions of affection joyously offered to or received from family and platonic friends. The Japanese call this "skinship", a pseudo-English term that implies non-sexual contact. It applies as much to a mother holding a newborn to her heart as the guttural chest bumps of foot- ballers after their team score a goal.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Not everyone considers skinship appropriate. This realisation comes as a shattering lesson to those like me. A friend recently shared this story about what happened when she leaned in to hug a colleague who was quitting.

"Is it necessary?" asked the other woman. Words to put the freeze on my friend's gush of goodwill towards someone who was otherwise a generous and helpful comrade in the workforce, someone closer than an acquaintance and close to being a friend.

It is disturbing to realise that your approach with outstretched arms is being viewed by the other party as akin to the lurching attack of a zombie intent on consuming brains. Entirely natural expressions of emotion are viewed as suspect and disturbing when they should not be.

People like me communicate through physical affection just like primates affirm their existence and place in the group through grooming one another or wrestling. I blame my beast self on my upbringing in a family that still considers no morning complete without hugs and kisses. My father still challenges his two children to bear-hug matches. The first to squeeze the breath out of the other wins and often my brother in his enthusiasm lifts our father off his feet.

Not all my friends grew up or live this way or consider hugs essential communication between two people who are not lovers but who are intimate, platonic friends.

Yet most humans crave platonic physical interaction, whether or not they are aware of it. Many agonise over its appropriate forms, as shown in satirical videos How To Hug and Most Awkward Handshake filmed by pop culture company BuzzFeed for its YouTube channel.

Affection is expressed in many ways and I have come to value the friends who prefer to keep their physical distance but pile food on my plate or bootleg episodes of Sherlock for my viewing pleasure. In deference to their wishes, my time with them is spent with hands clasped or sat upon so I will not slip and attack them with the affection of a lost gorilla reunited with the herd.

Happily, friendship is a two-way street, so, over the years, many of my shyer friends have found ways to demonstrate their affection in a manner I understand.

There is the hand-pump, perfected by males of a retiring disposition but also employed by many female friends I met first as colleagues. On meeting a good friend, the shy party conveys his utmost admiration and heartfelt joy by swinging the friend's palm in a frenzied motion designed to eventually dislocate both persons' shoulders. The rationale is that shared pain bonds, I think. More likely, once started, inertia of motion makes it impossible for either to let go.

As a closer degree of friendship is achieved, there is the toxic-waste- disposal one-armed hug. The shy party stands an arm's length away and at a 90-degree angle to the object of platonic affection. One arm is extended hesitantly until the palm approaches the opposite party's shoulder. Pats may then be administered, gingerly, and not more than five per hug. It helps if both friends have their faces turned away from each other so the shy party can pretend that this is not really happening.

As the recipient of one-armed hugs on several occasions, I can testify that it is easy to not realise what is happening until one turns to brush off what appeared to be a pesky mosquito. After noticing, avoid braying with laughter and pulling the friend into a bear hug while saying: "THIS is how we do it." The shy friend is really, really trying and would prefer not to be noticed until he has perfected his method.

The next iteration is the two-armed killer robot, where the giver approaches with arms held perpendicular to the body and awkwardly steps towards and away from the recipient until ideal distance is achieved. The arms then wrap around the recipient's shoulder-blades, elbows locked into rigid place, palms uncertain how much pressure to exert. It helps if the recipient remains relaxed, does not giggle and puts her arms around the giver for a soothing squeeze or non-patronising pat. It may take a couple of tries but the two-armed killer robot very soon becomes a genuine, relaxed embrace between two friends who are entirely at ease in each other's company and happy to be alive.

It has taken one of my oldest friends 13 years to begin offering me and others the sorts of hugs I grew up with. Finally at ease with hugging, she reaches out only to a few whom she loves and trusts. That is exactly right. Platonic physical touch is a gift offered to someone whose existence is valued by the giver and it is important for both sides of the friendship that this gift be offered only to those who would not be discomfited by it.

When an acquaintance enters my zone of friendship, I usually test the waters with a fist-bump. The fist-bump has overtones of sportsmanlike bonding that puts men at ease and for some reason sends women into fits of laughter - so clearly they are not made uncomfortable by the gesture.

A friend announces her promotion? Fist-bump to mark her success.

A friend reveals he is going to give up his job to pursue his artistic dreams but worries about the financial implications? Fist-bump for his courage, fist-bump again in a wordless affirmation that it will be okay.

A friend is back on his feet after a major operation? Three fist-bumps signifying: I'm so glad to see you, you are so brave, here's to the rest of your life.

Funny thing. Every single one of those fist-bumps has led to a one-armed hug initiated by the other side. Perhaps in time I can approach them with arms outstretched and not appear in their eyes like a threatening zombie, or killer robot. Fist-bump to that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'What's so hard about a hug?'. Print Edition | Subscribe