I've noticed an oddly confusing greeting mismatch in the US that I wanted to understand. Unless men are very close friends or family, they tend to shake hands in greeting. When greeting a woman - even one they don't know well or just met - they often hug instead... or try to, which can lead to awkwardness.

This came to mind recently. I'm staying as a guest with family, my husband's cousin, her husband, and their sons. When the husband (who I've only met once before at a family party) arrived home, he greets my husband with a handshake but clearly expected to hug me, which I facilitated by standing up and sharing what I felt was a very awkward hug. After a while, we all went to bed and the same thing happened - handshake for my husband and awkward hug for me.

The same has happened with my husband's male friends, so it's not just family. The only place I don't see this occurring is between coworkers, though in social settings, I have been hugged by my husband's male colleagues.

This seems odd to me and seems like a recent change. I'm pretty sure that 100 years ago men and women probably didn't even shake hands, let alone hug. Why does this happen now?

I know that a lot of the questions on this site are opinion-based. I'm looking for answers that address this with social science references. I'm not looking for "solutions" - I'm not sure this is a "problem", though I'm sure that many people find it uncomfortable. I specifically want to know "why" this difference exists.

  • 3
    I see that you are in "the Austin film community". This would not happen in the Boston/Cambridge academic community. Does this hugging go on in Texas generally or just in arts-and-entertainment Texas?
    – user1760
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:24
  • @ab2 the most recent example (in the question) was in Chicago.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:29
  • Many of these answers are 'intelligently speculative' and do not provide the types of references that OP wanted. If an answer is unknowingly not in line with OP's expectations it needs to be edited to avoid irrelevance. And please provide references! Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 7:06

9 Answers 9


I won't even pretend to have seen this type of situation, because in India men are not supposed to hug any women except their immediate family, nor even shake hands with unrelated women (though men shaking hands with women is nowadays allowed in college classrooms and in corporate settings): However OP @Catija has specifically asked for a referenced answer over personal experience...

... so unlike some of the previous 'intelligently speculative' answers, I am taking you straight to a published article written by a woman who has analyzed the precise phenomenon in your question. Note that the article is long and detailed and nominally deals with the so-called professional setting, but it could be well applied to the social setting as well, and explains really well most of the phenomena you have described, from a woman's perspective.

As in, it's quite convincing, though you can make up your own mind.

Catherine LeClair, article titled "I’m A Woman, Shake My Hand, Damn It" [8/03/17 1:41pm] at


Based on the earlier answers and this very perceptive article, I think most well-intentioned men who shake hands with other men but hug women, do so because they want to signal 'equality' with men and 'affection' with women. Men don't want to shake hands with women because it would signal equality, which is conflicting to them, but also because it might portray them as cold and unemotional in this 'age of instant warmth', which is also why women often submit to being hugged even when they should really prefer to signal independence by shaking hands with men.

Notable extracts:

A boozy office party was starting to dwindle (...) I stuck out my hand for a handshake when my turn came. (...) He looked down at my hand and laughed, and then opened his arms for a hug. I laughed too, undercutting my social experiment for fear of embarrassing one or both of us, and accepted the embrace. The incident wasn’t a big deal; my co-worker is a close enough friend that the hug didn’t feel out of line. But others I’d received in the past from men in professional settings had felt less natural and more invasive, and from talking to other women, I’m definitely not alone. (...)

“There was a lot more personal space years ago,”(...) "[but now]we’re all supposed to be bubbly, and somehow a hug really reflects bubbliness,” [Lizzie] Post, the etiquette expert, told me. She described some of the ways in which casual culture has raised the standard for cheerfulness:

All our emails are punctuated with gifs, and a period at the end of a text message reads like a death stare.

If that’s the case, Post wondered, perhaps hugs are just some men’s clumsy way of showing women that they don’t hate them? “It doesn’t have to be unfriendly just because it doesn’t come with exclamation points. I think that the hug is a physical extension of our overuse of emoji and exclamation points.” (...)

I spoke with one staffer for a congresswoman, who recounted for me the gendered interactions both she and her boss regularly face in Washington. “What bothers me the most is seeing my boss as a female member of Congress who is trying to move up in leadership still be kissed and hugged in professional meetings by lobbyists or other stakeholders,” she told me. (...) That’s practically part of the job, to act way happier and nicer than you feel. And if she hadn’t done so, she would have been punished for it, called inaccessible and unemotional.

That’s something that isn’t just reserved for dignitaries, either. Women’s struggle with a likability double standard has been well-documented. When it comes to choosing between your personal comfort level and accommodating someone else’s ego, it can be hard to stand your ground and risk your reputation. Most of the time I find myself giving into the expectation that I be cheerful and chill. (...)

One self-proclaimed hugger believes his embraces are both an extension of his personality and a secret weapon that has helped him find professional success. “I’m a pretty outgoing, and I’d like to think warm-and-friendly person,” he explained.


Men hug women because they’re afraid of coming off as cold or disinterested [...]

Go on and read the whole very interesting article here remembering that it is frequently divided by advertisements: so don't stop till you reach the end of the page!

So, what happens when women buck the status quo by refusing to offer up a hug? “I often get an awkward wave from males,” one female professional in the environmental science field told me, “but I hold out my hand even more awkwardly until they shake it.”

Last line: Catherine LeClair concludes her article thusly:

We’re all in this mess together, which means it’s up to both men and women to work our way out. I’ll try to stand up for myself and insist on foregoing a hug when I don’t want to be hugged. And you can start by shaking my hand.


Here are the norms for adults greetings based on gender in my area:

  • F/F, F/M, complete stranger: handshake (usually)

  • F/F, F/M, acquainted: hug

  • F/F, F/M, good friend/family: hug

  • M/M, complete stranger: handshake

  • M/M, acquainted: handshake (usually)

  • M/M, good friend/family: hug, handshake, or nothing

These vary with age, personal preference, and the type of relationship you have with them (business, friend, loved one), but this is a rough outline, based off my own experiences in the Midwest.

Hugs and handshakes both show trust, by showing you are not wielding a weapon. Handshakes show you have a clear hand, while hugs can show you are not hiding a knife behind your back, for example. In this way, hugs are seen as a greeting of a higher level than handshakes, but I don't really think that's the cause of the variation by gender.

I think it mainly has to do with other ideas like handshakes are more "manly", or hugging another guy is too homosexual or something. But nowadays, I'd say it's just cultural norms.

As long as you offer a handshake before they start trying to hug you, they'll typically oblige. I would just be a bit worried if they might feel offended that you won't hug them, as if you dislike them or something. It's not the easiest thing to avoid awkward situations in greetings and goodbyes, so that's probably also another reason why people frequently just go by the norm.

Personally, I greet people with neither, and I reciprocate any handshakes or hugs that are offered. It gets rid of awkward hugs and handshakes, but it sometimes is still awkward if people are shy or expect a handshake/hug.

  • What region are you in? Is your area urban, suburban, or rural?
    – Jasper
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 18:18
  • Add to the last M/M: high-5s, fistbumps, backslapping, rowdy jibes and laughter.
    – Stian
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 12:43

I can guess that these men believe that women are more likely to express emotion in their greetings (and hugs are a kind of emotional expression.) But that might be a starry-eyed interpretation. It probably has more to do with power distribution and dominance.

In 1977, N.M. Henley wrote a book, Body Politics, about power interactions revealed non-verbal cues including touch. The hypothesis was that the powerful signified their dominance in non-verbal manners. (If you want clear evidence of this, see Donald Trump's handshakes. They are very aggressive/domineering, esp. see his handshake with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.) In a later revision (1990s), she states (again) that men exhibit more dominance in their body language with women.

Non-verbal control is of particular to women, who are more sensitive to its cues and probably more the targets of such control.

A lot of her writing is about gender inequality. Invading space and touch are used between unequals to assert dominance, not attraction or intimacy.

...the failure to reciprocate a dominance gesture by another indicates an acceptance of the legitimacy of the other's dominance, and reciprocation indicates a reassertion of one's own status...

Regarding personal space,

Dominants are freer to move into others', or common, territory.

What's more subjugating than totally invading a person's space than by physically moving into it and touching the person with a hug?

People aren't dogs, but dogs actually see hugs as threats or displays of dominance.

I'm from the US (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic states). Men don't hug women they are just meeting here, and I would actually back away from such a maneuver if it were begun. It's just too invasive for me. If it's a friend, it's fine.

My guess from the above is that I refuse to submit to a male dominance gesture of moving into my personal space and touching me in a manner uninvited.

However, I see a lot of men hugging, too. Men seem to be hugging almost as much as women in my friends group. (Alternately, no one hugs; men shake hands and say hi to the women.)

If you feel awkward with a hug, just extend your hand with a warm smile before the male has a chance to move in. If they start, just keep your distance and add, "I'm so happy to meet you!"

All the President’s Handshakes

  • 7
    Not saying that you're wrong, just saying that most people, probably don't put that level of intention into their greetings... Unless they're... Trump... Or Trump-like and are desperately trying to be perceived as an alpha. Seems a little harsh to lump an awful lot of real humans in with that trainwreck.
    – apaul
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 4:40
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    @apaul34208 - Unlike Trump, I don't think most people know they're doing it. Body language is more honest than verbal language for that reason. Few people really study it (apart from psychologists/sociologisis). Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 11:49

In seeing this in other areas, I think there are a couple of aspects to consider.

Historically, the handshake was a way to show trust, by giving your weapon hand, open and empty, to someone you didn't know or trust well - evidencing no immediate intent to attack, while retaining some distance for safety. And this was in a very masculine, warrior space. A hug showed implicit trust, as this opened up an opportunity for a backstab.

At that time, women did not typically carry weapons, so hugs presented low risk.

While times have moved on, a lot of that cultural inertia still remains, and is even supported in the workplace. The changes have led to more awkwardness, however, as men are under even more pressure to show respect, do the right thing, and even follow unspoken rules around this, so while they may want to shake hands in order to treat women the same as men, they may still feel a hug is what they should do. Uncomfortable for all concerned.

To solve the problem - stick your hand out if you want to shake hands. Or lean in for a proper European air-kiss :-)

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    I have heard this as well (the weapons thing), but I've also read that it's a myth. In depictions of mythology, there are women shaking hands (e.g. Hera and Athena) or on gravestones, a husband and wife. (This is in ancient times.) So it might well be something else. :) Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:39
  • Obviously it was a huge generalisation - me: I'm definitely a hugger :-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:21
  • 2
    @anongoodnurse Athena is a warrior, she has to put down her signature spear to shake hands with Hera. If shaking hands is supposed to be a gesture of disarmament, that scene is a strong argument pro, not con.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:43
  • This is also the origin of the scout's (left-handed) handshake that I was told - using the left hand means that your right hand is free to draw your weapon and so, this shows trust. Not definitive by any means, but certainly points to your answer being more plausible Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 22:57
  • 1
    The euro "air-kiss" doesn't have that much air, you're supposed to kiss teh cheeks ;) well at least here everyone does...
    – user2135
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 18:35

I think people may be reading a little more into this than is really there...

Most people pick up these behaviors by watching adults and peers in childhood. That seems simple enough, right? Human see human do, and we all do it to some extent.

So, chances are pretty good that if you're a guy and your Dad was the type to shake hands with men and hug women, and you see that pattern repeated by other male figures when you're a kid, you'll likely think that is the "norm".

I grew up in an environment where men shook hands somewhat aggressively, but offered a gentler palm up hand to women. I'm sure it can be traced to some historical origin, but it has little, if anything, to do with why I actually do it. I do it because that was the norm I grew up with.

Hugging was reserved for people you were particularly close to, and even then it wasn't a common thing. You hugged people in particularly emotional situations, and my people didn't tend to be particularly emotional.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"

  • I'm sorry but I don't see any social science reference here. Personal experience isn't really what I'm looking for.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 3:10
  • 6
    @Catija odd that only 2 out of 5 answers used references and even those were kind of reaching... My hypothesis is that the best you're likely to get in this area is hypothesis based on observation. Anthropology is kinda funny like that, it's hard to get really concrete answers about "the why" of a cultural norm.
    – apaul
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 4:21
  • So I should just give up and not even hope to have any better understanding than an anecdote that says I'm wrong in my experience without any other support? How does that help me understand better?
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 13:34
  • 2
    @Catija I didn't say that you're wrong. Just said that, most likely, what you're observing is the result of social conditioning and you're not likely to find a better explanation.
    – apaul
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 15:24

The OP specifically wants to know why men shake hands with each other but hug women. The answer may be rooted in millions of years of evolution in primate signals of aggression and friendship.

This article in GQ Why Do Guys Always Have to Pat Each Other on the Back When They Hug? has a paragraph which is pertinent to the OP's why question. The paragraph quotes Richard Wrangham, Professor of Anthropological Biology at Harvard.

[This theory] suggests that males would basically prefer not to pat or hug, because such close physical proximity is ultimately somewhat stressful (given that it is potentially dangerous to be so close to someone who could be a secret rival).

If Wrangham is right, men hug women more often than they hug men because, as male primates they do not see women (female primates) as potential rivals, thus it is not dangerous to hug them.

As to why men shake hands -- a custom depicted on Grecian art of the 5th century BC -- see Handshake, Wikipedia:

The handshake is thought by some to have originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon.

This interpretation, although a popular one, does not explain the 5th century Grecian BC bas-relief of two goddesses shaking hands. (Wikipedia reference above.)

  • 1
    I don't follow your logic. Explaining why men don't hug each other doesn't answer why they do hug women. It's not as if we have centuries of history of men hugging women. It's new.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 21:05
  • 1
    @Catija Do you want a cultural/historical explanation? I can only offer a evolutionary/biological explanation. Apes hug to comfort each other. Monkeys have been observed to hug to de-escalate tension. Hugging is very old. Male-Male hugging has the danger I described. Male-female hugging does not. As to why men hug women now when they didn't years/centuries ago, first you have to establish in which cultures and in which relationships they do, now. I would be astonished to be hugged outside of my close family. Good question; PhD dissertation answer needed.
    – user1760
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 21:34
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    Athena is a warrior goddess. She's armed with her signature spear and wears combat helmet on the relief. She had to move the spear to her left hand (thus momentarily impairing her combat capability) in order to shake Hera's hand. The spear is pointed down, another disarming gesture. The relief commemorates military alliance. Even though Hera doesn't carry war symbolism on her own, she's appearing here as representation of a state, a military power. Everything put together very strongly reinforces the "show no weapon" claim, not disproves it.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 14:30

Because handshake establishes "we're equal" relation (note how CEO shaking hands with a factory worker is seen as humble on the CEO side and elevation for the worker) and/or is seen as a manly gesture.

That's pretty much it. In work environment, it's less prominent, because the gender of a coworker doesn't matter much (or, at least, we believe it shouldn't matter), but in social interactions, gender is still very, very important. Hence, people resist breaking this barrier with a handshake, as it would undermine the cornerstone of social rules.

BTW, the most recent way how man should greet a woman is a hand-kiss, but it went out of fashion while shaking hands did not. That's the source of awkwardness: everybody feels that handshake is incorrect, but we have nothing else to do. Hugging and kissing were substituted, but they feel too intimate and out of place as well.

Why did hand-kiss go out of fashion? Because it establishes submission, like in Godfather or when meeting the Pope. It begins as kissing the signet ring, a visible symbol of power and later extended as a general display of submission and servitude. It was used by men greeting women (although, only women of equal status or higher, no peer would hand-kiss a commoner!), but in this context, the submission was purely ceremonial. It had to change with emancipation, because now the conventional ceremoniality was lost, as the man and woman involved could be a part of one hierarchy and have an actual boss-subordinate relationship.


Why, most of the time, do we use our right hand ?

According to scientists, 90%+ of Humans use their right hand as the predominant one. It's because of the lateralization of the brain and has been like this for thousands of years according to some studies, such as this one: David Frayer - University of Kansas) or, more broadly, to Laterality - Wikipedia.

Therefore, it is used to perfom most of human activities, from nice ones (so many, you name them), to needed ones so one can live (such as till the land, grow produce, hunt), and, unfortunately, to others like fight each other and kill.

Why do men shake hands with men ?

The right hand being able to threaten and harm, it becomes pretty obvious that, through times and history, men have seen this gesture as a matter of peace: I show you my hand, you can take it, so you'll see I can't use it anymore to harm you. But not only... The Blood Brother Oath involves holding one's hand. So, we can understand it as a willing of no harm, a greeting, or a farewell.

Why hug someone ?

Hugs-and-kisses (xoxo in written) is used for expressing sincerity, faith, love, or good friendship. It originated in the Middle Ages, according to Wikipedia - The christian cross. At the time, you were not able to meet as much as you wanted someone who lived far away from you, nor hugging/kissing her/him really often. Therefore, the X with a kiss on it at the bottom of a letter was a way to express your feelings. NOTE: this, as most part of any country was not educated, was used by wealthy people, upper-class persons, who had time/money to learn, and where able to read and write.

It's worth thinking that it may have roughly be transposed from writing to a (token ?) gesture.

Another possibility is the transfer from parenthood/childhood to, slowly, a wider span of the human spectrum: family -> relatives -> close ones -> friends -> ??? As a father/mother/elder, in almost any culture, a very young one is hugged whenever s/he is afraid. Hugging make feel the cozy, emotional, human warmth. To both. One can do it to help and give, or in order to feel better themselves: I did something nice reassuring someone who needs support, feels intimidated, or is frightened. When confronted with it, every individual may take it differently, POV are not always shared.

The "bear hug", even if soft and smooth, can be seen as a domination gesture. It's invading one's privacy, because it shows (whether you mean it or not) your strenght, opposed to the other's (supposed) weakness. The same can be feeled when confronted with the "cheeks-kissing" that is common in some countries/cultures. It's not a matter of domination, rather privacy violation.

Man to Woman relationship and way of greetings

About your 100 years ago part: it used to be hand-kissing. In Europe, it shows respect and humility, as the man has to bow to the woman. It was to be done to married or high-ranked women (such as Prime Minister / President / or their wife). It's still used when asking a woman to marry you in some countries/culture.

When it comes to adults, same gesture, different story though...

As usual, when you talk about such a personal matter, culture and background are important 1, as also mentioned by Lesley Téllez in her "proper American goodbye" 2 or Maralee McKee ("manners for great greetings") 3.

From Verily: the University of Oxford study's results indicate that when it comes to interacting with strangers and acquaintances, men feel more comfortable being touched. In general, women don't feel comfortable being touched by strangers and acquaintances — not too surprising. 4

Why do men shake hands with each other but hug women?

It's not as if we have centuries of history of men hugging women. It's new. ( Catija♦ Aug 17)

Yes. Things change. Habits change. And when this happens, rituals are comforting. These rituals modify, adapt or alter themselves along with the society changes, and are kind of "vogue".

1 Pocket cultures - Kiss, hug or shake hands?

2 Hug or handshake? The proper American goodbye

3 Maralee McKee - Manners Mentor

4 The University of Oxford - Topography of social touching

  • Expert answer and I upvote: I thinks, maybe you are psychologist! The only 2 points that remain: if there was no historical precedent for American men to hug unrelated women, when and how did this enter popular culture and become an accepted practice; and why do men seemingly prefer not to shake hands with women? Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 15:11
  • @EnglishStudent : thanks. I'm no psychologist, just a curious man :) it took me months before I can craft this answer, as I had only half of it, and still a lot of research to back-up some of my thoughts and claim. Better late than never though ^^
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 15:35
  • 1. when and how did this enter popular culture and become an accepted practice -> I have absolutely no idea...2. why do men seemingly prefer not to shake hands with women? because of this feeling of protecting/getting closer?
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 15:39
  • One minor point: in medieval times and in feudal Japan the left hand is usually the more dangerous hand as it was used to hold a short sword or dagger. The right hand sword/axe/mace was used to get the opponent down, the dagger was used for the kill.
    – GretchenV
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 21:11

What seems missing in the answers is the female--with all her attributes--point of view, which is to say, the feel and be felt point of view. For one, the hugging thing is not unlike the continental hand kissing thing: it is best done properly or not at all.

With hand kissing, lips and saliva never touch hand skin. With hugging when invited, chest protuberance touching is finessed if not avoided where possible. That is not to say that a woman who does not dislike or feel "un-accepting" about a particular male will not include a certain "nodular firmness" in her social embrace of said male; but it is to say that the response must be deft and fleeting...for obvious reasons. Although it might come as a surprise that a woman will want to bestow attributes, such surprise must never be expressed.

Men on the other hand, shake hands or do otherwise based on cultural training and expectations. A long-standing cultural norm in many societies has been that male-female contact shall not occur between non-relations past a certain age, or even relations in some instances.

Nowadays, in the U.S. at least, a male-female hug can be deflected by holding out a hand to shake, as the handshake has become more predominantly gender neutral.


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