The ‘Man Hug’

A blog from Mark Seymour about the growing Australian phenomena that is the manhug.

Author: Mark Seymour.

Date: 14 August 2009.

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Article Text

Forms of greeting are highly symbolic. They define the way we regard each other and the way we communicate. In Latin culture, the double cheek kiss is mandatory across the sexes. Men to men, men to women and women likewise. The Japanese bow and the Maori have the ‘hongi’, a meeting of foreheads and noses to symbolize the exchange of breathe…

Forms of greeting must be sufficiently robust and well accepted that they can endure a range of emotional subtleties; everything from deep affection to begrudging respect.

Greetings have deep cultural significance. Most have evolved over centuries and physically symbolize the complex interplay of ritual and values of the culture that spawned them. In public life, particularly amongst world leaders, the form they take is crucial. When real power is at stake, appearances matter which is why foreign ministers become well-schooled in the full multi-national range. Respect is crucial and intentions must be clear from the outset.

In Australia and the other former dominions of the British empire, the traditional greeting has long been the handshake. But there is an interesting twist to this. For some reason, in our culture this form of greeting can vary depending on gender and context. In mixed company it is considered acceptable, even respectful to kiss the woman and shake the hand of the man. To kiss the man is right out of the question and to shake the hand of the woman is considered by many to be excessively formal or stiff, although in business the handshake is generally accepted across the board. However, there is one fundamental assumption that is understood by all. Unless they are related, (and even then it’s a stretch!), or gay, men do not kiss each other!

So why make the distinction? In Latin culture the ‘double cheek kiss’ is trans gender, likewise the Maori Hongi. In fact, in most ethnic traditions, greetings are ‘asexual,’ but in our culture there seems to be a need to acknowledge gender. The kiss, regarded as more intimate, is held to be better suited to the feminine and the handshake, which is more formal, the masculine. But there is a more subtle mechanism at work here. In our culture public intimacy between men is fraught with difficulty because of the ever-present issue of ‘gayness’. Western culture is deeply neurotic about this which is why our forms of greeting are so layered and complex.

The handshake allows western men to greet each other without compromising any residual competitiveness that is implicit in male bonding and assumed to be absent between men and women.. which is of course, an arcane assumption hailing back to traditions of chivalry. After all, we are living in an age when competitiveness between the sexes has long been commonplace.

There is also implicit in the handshake the traditional notion that a man’s character can be measured by the strength of his grip. In most cases of course, it is perfunctory. We squeeze without thinking… or not, depending on how seriously we take the whole exercise.

But it would seem, there are some men who take the whole ‘man-greeting’ thing very seriously indeed. So much so that in recent years there has been a shift. Given that the kiss remains out of bounds for straight men, it would appear some crave a higher degree of public intimacy without actually kissing. A new phenomenon of social engagement has risen. It is called the ‘man hug.’

It starts with outstretched arms, from a couple of metres away, then the approach, the beaming smile or the solemn upward gaze, brief eye-contact then the embrace accompanied by back-slapping, leaning slightly forward so as not to make contact in the groin area, then release. Men who hug do it exactly this way. There is no hesitation, no lingering moments. Then it’s all over.

The ‘man-hug’ is highly conspicuous. Men who don’t do it notice the ones who do. The word ‘mate’ is often mentioned, sometimes elaborately stretched, something a long the lines of ‘maaate’ as they move in for the grapple.

Now there is no harm in any of this but make no mistake; the ‘man hug’ is no less ‘formal’ than any other greeting that ever gained acceptance. Much as it appears to short-circuit traditional male values, like competitiveness and machismo, the fact is, the ‘man-hug’ is still highly charged.

The problem with the ‘man-hug’ is that it hasn’t quite found its place. There is still that sense of awkwardness amongst men when they witness others overusing it, loudly, theatrically, which unfortunately tends to make those who still doggedly adhere to the hand-shake feel slightly less evolved, even excluded from the club of the enlightened ones who aren’t ‘afraid’ of getting close.

And of course, there is still that nagging question of ‘gayness,’ that great bastion of western neurosis that precludes the possibility that men can kiss in public.. the taboo that conspicuous ‘man-huggers’ are trying to tear down, (without kissing each other of course.)

You see, the ‘man-hug’ has simply introduced another layer of complexity. In cultures where there is one simple gesture for all regardless of gender, there is no urge to demonstrate varying degrees of intimacy. One size fits all. Unfortunately for us Anglo-saxons, the complexity already exists.

Bear in mind that the beauty of the handshake lies in its neutrality. It allows us to show respect to friends and enemies alike. The handshake does not presume anything beyond that. Famous sportspeople rarely refuse the hand of a prime minister, regardless of politics, although perhaps sometimes they should. After all, the handshake is a deal sealer. As a public gesture it stands as a sign of respect and if that means showing respect for our enemies then so be it. We have enemies because we choose to make them so. The handshake allows us that space whereas the ‘man-hug’ automatically impiies amicable relations. Given appearances then, one would assume that men do not hug their enemies. Or do they?

Kissing still remains at the outer limits of intimacy between men. If we kiss our enemies we are committing an act of pure hypocrisy. It’s what Judas did; but the ‘man-hug’ lies somewhere in between. Its significance can be murky. When ‘hugging’ becomes the norm in rooms full of ‘mates’, a subtle element of hypocrisy can also creep in. Old grudges can become subsumed by an atmosphere of bombastic new-age bonding because, at the end of the day, enemies remain. In other words, there is significant risk in its over-use. The ‘man-hug’ can work as a smoke screen, which is of course sometimes the intention.

When men hug out of ‘need’ the affect can be contradictory. In situations where relations are tenuous, even tense, conspicuous displays of affection between men have a tendency to raise the stakes unnecessarily. They can be construed as exclusive, partisan, even sleazy. After all, there are always going to be inappropriate levels of intimacy in certain forms of greeting. The kiss itself can be gratuitous, especially when alcohol-induced.

Sometimes the handshake is enough.

In the end the ‘man-hug’ is okay if you don’t want to kiss a bloke. But before you go in for the clinch, just ask yourself, “Is he really my friend?”