To Hug or Not to Hug?

I’ve had several awkward moments greeting several different clients in the past few months, where the unspoken question for both of us has been, “To hug or not to hug?” The question seems to arise with clients who fall in two categories:

1 – Business friends – these are clients with whom I don’t necessarily socialize outside of work, but with whom I have established a relationship that’s far more than strictly business — a relationship marked by candor, warmth, genuine caring, and the easy exchange of personal as well as business information.

2 – Personal friends who have become clients – these are clients with whom I had a personal relationship long before we did any work together.

The dilemma arises when a handshake seems completely inauthentic because it’s too formal and distant, and yet a hug seems out of place in a business setting. So what usually results is a really awkward, jerky-movement thing, like two chickens in a barnyard – one of us sticks out our hand while the other moves in for a light embrace, then we both pull back and switch, trying to match the others’ first move.

Trusted Advisor work teaches us to seek intimacy — not fear it – through emotional connectedness with clients; to dare to show clients that we care about them and that we see them more as human beings than walking, talking revenue streams. And yet the question, “To hug or not to hug?” raises all kinds of ancillary questions. Such as:

-What if my client doesn’t like to hug anyone, let alone his or her consultant?

-Should the rules be different depending on whether my client is a man or a woman? The same gender or the opposite gender?

-What if someone else who is “outside” the relationship is there to witness (or be left out of) the hug?

-What is the equivalent dilemma in a country with different cultural norms, where hugging might be completely off the table but kissing might not?

-How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Your thoughts?

6 replies
  1. Steve McCreedy
    Steve McCreedy says:

    Excellent points Andrea of which there are no hard, fast answers.  Selling is an intuitive "art" as well as acquired skills.  In my opinion it begins with knowing the person your meeting.  What is their personality?  Are they warm, friendly, relational or are they distant, direct and stoic?  The second important issue is your personality … which of the above are you?  There’s nothing worse than giving someone a disengenuious hug … then it’s really awkward for you, them and everyone around.  It could even hurt your business relationship.  So, if you are a warm, friendly, relational person look for the opportunities to use the "business" hug with the right clients … you’ll know if it’s the right thing to do … intuitively.

    Steve McCreedy


  2. Andrew Gates
    Andrew Gates says:

    This is a great question. First, I think hugs can work for both classes of people. My comment would be that the situation would dicate the hug or not. Do you see each other a lot? Are there others in the room…like you mentioned. If you are a man…wait for it to be initiated.

  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Andrea, my strategy on this is very boring:

    1.  Always let the other person draw his or her own line.

    2. Straightforwardly ask something like, "I’m a huggy person.  May I hug you, or would it be better if I shook your hand? What works for you?"

    I gave up on ESP a long time ago.  I ask a lot of people a lot of things they expect to be danced around.  It makes some people uncomfortable, but eventually they get used to me.  I find it ultimately avoids a lot of offense and hurt feelings. (Maybe all of this is an immune reaction to the years I worked in Japan!)

    And I hope you know I’ve got hugs for you whenever I see you. 🙂

  4. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    While I am a New Zealander, most us come from a broad British/Irish background and hold to a vaguely British personal code.  Men. Don’t. Hug.  At least not other men. Sometimes women with whom I have a warm professional relationship like to hug, and thats perfectly fine.  However there is nothing worse than a hug into which one feels compelled… it reeks of forced bonhomie and some wierd kind of declared (but unreal) intimacy.

    Bah humbug.

    However, surely a genuine and mutual regard for another person requires no calculation on either part. I’d just hope they’ve washed reasonably recently 🙂



  5. R Everett
    R Everett says:

    I agree with the straighforward idea of asking permission: hugging is intimate. And, being highly sensitive to perfume, I am given the option to decline as it would make me ill. I’ve declined hugs from very close firends when I detect perfume/cologne, and while initially confused, they’re all very fogiving. I believe the permission to decline a direct request provides respect.


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