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I am male and I regularly hug my good male and good female friends. At the very least when saying Hello and Goodbye. I have the feeling that is not uncommon here in Germany.

Now, I have a a small group of coworkers (same cultural background), which I get along with very very well. I would say we're (kind of) close. Two of those have left the company in recent months. Of those two, one is male and one is female.

With the male coworker I had a private conversation to say Goodbye and we shared a hug. That was good. But that was like a guy-ish "C'mon, get in here" hug situation.

With the female coworker, I also had a private conversation. This conversation did lead to a hug, but only after some weird verbal proposal on my side. It took me very long the get to the point / to present my intention. But she was fully OK with it. However, this would have been very uncomfortable, if she wasn't. I would have preferred to find a way to offer a hug, but still to leave an easy exit if the other person doesn't want to. Especially when the other sex is concerned.

How do I offer a hug (to the opposite sex) without making the other person feel uncomfortable when declining it? Is this even possible?

  • Are your coworkers from the same cultural background as you? – gerrit Dec 20 '18 at 19:41
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    Hi YesIDoLikeHugs123! Nice first question. In order to avoid getting suggestions describing exactly what you've already done, could you describe how you proposed the hug? Was it body language (if you can describe it, please do, I know it's hard but it helps a lot!), or verbal? How did you time the offer, I get the impression that the hug came as a last thing, not in the middle of the conversation? – Tinkeringbell Dec 20 '18 at 19:50
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    @Tinkeringbell It was verbal (very little body language at most) and it was at the end of the conversation. But it took me forever to get to the point, because I was searching for an appropriate phrasing. – YesIDoLikeHugs123 Dec 20 '18 at 21:47
  • @gerrit Yes. I Updated the post. – YesIDoLikeHugs123 Dec 20 '18 at 21:48
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The only way to avoid all possible discomfort from offering a hug would be to not offer a hug.

If we assume that the cultural context you are in and the cultural context of the people involved does not forbid touch between individuals of opposite gender, I would suggest the best way to avoid pressure is to 1) ask verbally, simply, and directly, and 2) limit the time window that the request hangs.

For example, in my cultural context in the US, I would suggest to ask "Is a hug okay?" perhaps with your arms cautiously outstretched (by cautiously I mean not reaching out for them directly, more at your side, perhaps as you lean back rather than forward).

If not met by an immediate, enthusiastic, positive response, offer an extended hand for a handshake instead, smile when they accept, avoid seeming disappointed (and if this is just an offer for a friendly goodbye, you should have no reason to be offended or disappointed), and continue with any appropriate pleasantries (for example, wishing them luck or saying something about having enjoyed working with them if this is a goodbye to a coworker). In that way, you aren't forcing them to deny the request but rather offering an immediate alternative and also signaling that they are not wrong for not enthusiastically accepting.

You should also know situations that might seem more coercive or where it would be more important to avoid pressure and avoid physical contact unless they initiate:

  • If the other person could feel trapped, such as if no one else is around
  • If you are in a position of power as a supervisor/manager/senior coworker
  • If you know in your mind you have other intentions that are not simply friendly
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You have no direct control over how comfortable people feel around you. Ultimately That's something that comes from how others interpret your actions through their personal collection of experiences.

A big part of the reason that people can feel uncomfortable when asked for a hug is that they are concerned of a negative reaction if they decline the hug. With this in mind you can try to signal throughout your interactions with someone that you will "be chill" when faced with rejection.

Keep in mind that this sort of signaling is going on constantly from your first interaction with someone. If you want to improve your chances that people won't feel awkward when you offer them a hug you should try to be cognizant of this and try to incorporate it into your default social scripts. This should be done in an inconspicuous manner. You want to communicate that your "being chill" is unremarkable it's better to not draw attention to your chillness. Statements or actions you make that draw explicit attention carry with them the implicature that you consider this relevant enough to make note of, which implies that your chillness is an occasional or performative thing.

If they have established other boundaries, you should be respecting them. Ignoring established boundaries will signal that you're not likely to respect boundaries in the future. Similarly you should respond well to other rejections from them. Actions speak louder than words and past performance in similar situations is one of the best indicators of how someone will behave in the future.

When it comes to actually asking it's best to frame your request/offer of a hug in a manner that makes it easy to opt out of. Personally I've had good result by framing it as a friendly low key request between friends, similar to how I'd ask a roommate if they wanted something from the store. For me this normally something similar to "Would you like a hug?" quickly followed by "It's cool if you don't" if I don't get an immediate, positive response.

If they say "Yes!" then it's very likely that it's OK to hug them, and that you probably didn't make things awkward.

If they reject your offer then you need to put some effort into diffusing any awkwardness that was caused. This is best done by signaling that there weren't any negative repercussions and that things are still "cool" between you. This is done in a similar way to how you were signalling your "chillness" beforehand. If you draw explicit attention to how chill you are then you're going to end up signaling the opposite. I've found that suggesting an over the top silly but lower key gesture of affection (like a dramatic high five, or fist pound) works great to change the focus away from getting shot down.

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I would try to put the other person in the position of not having to verbally agree or not agree to a hug, because of the inherent awkwardness. The other person might feel pressured and might worry that I’ll feel bad. (And I know that I would feel bad if it ends up being awkward.)

Why not extend your hand for a handshake and make a declarative statement that puts the ball in the other person’s court? “I’m a hugger, but I know not everyone else is, so I always offer my hand.”

That allows the other person to smile and shake hands graciously since you’ve just given “permission” to do so without awkwardness. Or, it allows the other person to say, “I'm a hugger, too! Bring it in, brother!”

I think this allows you to say something about yourself and what you like without making a demand on the other person. If the other person likes the same thing, you’ve given him or her permission to respond in kind.

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