In 1994 my friend Ross picked me up from the airport and hugged me. I didn’t know what to make of this. Was he gay? Did he have cancer? Did he think I was about to fall? Was he very, very cold? Had he been in some freak accident that had caused the muscles in both his hands to wither away so dramatically they were unable to grip mine?
No, Ross had moved to Los Angeles to become a director and therefore was early to the bro hug. In the following two decades grown men would undergo a massive cultural shift, casually greeting one another with hugs—and not just when they returned from war, lost a parent, won the World Series or ordered a Mafia hit on you, but just as a way of saying hi. It was weird enough at the airport, but now men I see all the time in my own city hug me hello. Within a year, productivity will plummet, because we’ll spend the first 10 minutes of every day walking around the office, hugging everyone good morning.
Like American men of every generation up until now, I’m not fond of touching strangers. This is why I like Asian cultures, which are so averse to unnecessary contact they have utensils that barely touch their food. For me, touching comes in only two categories: pain and sex. It’s why I don’t understand the point of massages. I spend the entire time trying to figure out if the masseuse and I are going to fuck or fight. It’s why I like to spoon women but hate being spooned; at least when you’re spooning there’s a chance it might accidentally slip in. As a kid watching Three’s Company, I thought all men felt the same way. After all, when Jack Tripper got a consoling hug from Chrissy Snow or even Janet Whatever, he pushed on the small of their back to make their breasts rub against his body. Then they hit him.
The continuum of body contact is way too complicated for me. Once we start hugging, I’m easily confused. Fake cheek kiss? A couple of pats? Some kind of relaxing exhalation? Nestle into the shoulder? These are habits I associate with being in a sexual partner’s arms, and they may be hard to break once the friend hugging begins. The summer after 10th grade I slow danced with a girl while wearing parachute pants and got a raging boner that made me feel humiliated around her for the rest of my life. Who’s to say that thing won’t come back during a hug moment? My problem with hugs is not homophobic. I hate male hugs, female hugs, dog hugs, robot hugs, angel hugs and self hugs. I just expect more from men, who should understand my plight. Sure, there are creepy hugging therapists and those virgin dudes at ComicCon with the pathetic FREE HUGS sign, and I’m fine with them. Those guys need hugs. But alpha men are the ones propagating the bro hug. When former White House press secretary Jay Carney, whom I’ve known and liked for years, resigned, he made an uncharacteristically unsmooth move at the podium, ducking a good-bye handshake from President Obama and going in for the hug. It looked ugly because hugging is part of the lingua franca of douchebags who commingle their chest colognes at clubs and on the set of Entourage. There’s no dignity in a hug. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee didn’t meet at Appomattox to end the Civil War by hugging it out. The handshake had a purpose: to show you had no weapon in your hand. The only purpose of a hug is to show you have no dick.
I once sold a sitcom idea to a major studio, and when I nervously went to present the idea to the president—whom I’d never met—he greeted me with his two arms fully outstretched. It rattled me. For the rest of the meeting I had no mojo, having been made both uncomfortable and submissive while wrapped in his big arms like a small child. The man had mastered the power hug. He had made me his hug bitch. That’s because the hug is actually a power move, a gesture of magnanimity. The hug initiator is like Queen Elizabeth offering up her hand. “Yes,” the hugger says, “for the next few seconds you may touch my body.” Unlike a handshake, which renders both parties equal, a hug involves a hugger and a huggee, the offerer and the accepter, the one with his hands over the other’s shoulders and the one left holding his counterpart’s waist like an awkward teenage boy at a high school dance.
Besides, if the hug is to become the default American greeting, how do we show we actually care about someone? I once felt that hugging my parents and my sister was enough, but now I feel I have to give them something more, like that thing when you grab both their shoulders and look at them for a second, or when you punch each other in the arm afterward, or maybe that thing when you lift them up and twirl them, which sounds dangerous. I’m going to need something. Maybe I’ll shake their hands.