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What Does a Hug Say About You?

Updated on July 16, 2012

I had the great fortune to be at an Olympic trial event for gymnastics a few weekends ago, and aside from the amazing human feats I witnessed, my eyes also observed a much smaller yet equally thought provoking act. It followed nearly every routine these world-class athletes performed. Routines which they performed whole-heartedly and with incredible precision.

I am referring to the congratulatory embrace which is exchanged in light of good sportsmanship, yet between two humans who are the fiercest of competitors. On this final day of competition, only five out of thirteen women make the Olympic team every four years. And, as I learned later, this is often a once in a lifetime opportunity due to the incredible toll the sport takes on their bodies and the age at which these women peak physically.

Brothers.  Even if they fight, there is always hug.
Brothers. Even if they fight, there is always hug. | Source

The Social and Cultural Definition of a Hug

I am speaking more precisely about the curious art of hugging. And I am speaking from the perspective of a German, for whom even the word ‘hug' (translated to ‘Umarmung’) provides enough food for thought and discussion. First of all it is a mouth full, even if German is your first language. And it doesn't nearly roll of the tongue like its cute, three letter English equivalent.

Secondly, it is defined literally as placing your arms around someone or something. In my eyes, this translation clearly trails behind the emotional connection the English language (and culture) communicates. Furthermore, language commonly used in the U.S. that says “it looks like you could use a hug” is harder to find in German. The closest I can think of is roughly translated back to “let me give you a squeeze”. It sounds really more like a high five or 'slap on the butt', short of a slap in the face.

But let me clarify: while Germans may not to be known as the warmest people in the world, that is not to say that we are not caring. We may have a different style of interpersonal communication, but we feel love and compassion like any other human being. The point here is that hugging, especially in its length and intensity, is a socially and culturally determined phenomenon.

How to Give the Best Hug

Enough about cultural comparisons and back to gymnastics. The hugs I saw in the arena that day were by and large lightening fast, lacked body contact and basically felt like a required gesture instead of a sincere expression of support. Circumstances aside, as a spectator, I felt it definitely influenced the affinity I had for one competitor over another.

I believe that giving (and receiving) a hug, even if a nonverbal language, can communicate more than the spoken word. Case in point are the two best huggers I know in the Bay Area, my dear friends whom I met after becoming a Mom to my first born son. These two women give hugs that are long-lasting, strong and meaningful. They pull you in close to your body and always have a kind, uplifting word to accompany their embrace.

And they hug in this fashion very naturally and consistently. It is almost like an innate movement for them, something that is a part of who they are and aim to be. It is genuine and from the heart. I feel that if they could somehow bottle their skills and energy, their message could make a real difference. We all know that science has proven that hugs have a positive effect on overall health.

In their arms, I feel a real sense of trust, love and friendship. I feel support and encouragement during difficult times. I feel joy when it is time to celebrate. I feel a connection that will stand the test of time.

Even Strangers Can Give Hugs

Which brings me back to my original point that a hug says more about you than you might have previously given credit. In fact, your hug may speak directly to the kind of person who you are. I pause at this point to remember a hospital employee at the lab who had a real impact on me. Because of a hug.

She was a complete stranger, but could see that I was clearly not feeling well. I was having a particularly difficult time that day to remain composed during a blood draw which held important answers about my health. She clued in quickly (and correctly) to my emotional state and on my way out of the lab, she embraced me and said softly: "I can see that you are really hurting, and I want to tell you that all will be ok."

Her hug was soft, warm and strong. It was exactly what I needed during a time of uncertainty. And most importantly, it was sincere and perfectly timed. It was the boost I needed to return to a world of optimism and courage. And while I still don't know her name, I will always remember her genuine act of kindness. Because of a simple hug.


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    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I have also noticed the hugging in gymnastics. It is not the culture in many other sports and a lot of times seems disingenuous. It is an interesting concept of how hugs differ across cultures. I haven't ever analyzed hugs from others, but I think you are right that it says a lot about the type of person that you are. For me, a good hug can mean more than words.