Embrace the holidays: It’s time to mind your social X’s and O’s

As the eggnog begins to flow and the Christmas sweaters are pulled from their storage bags, it’s time to consider two other icons of this sparkly season: the social hugs and kisses.

Yes, at parties and gatherings throughout the land, the eternal questions re-blooms: Whom to hug? And kiss? And when? And how?

It’s fraught territory, these ostensibly convivial greetings between acquaintances, coworkers and friends.

In a 2011 study published in the journal Comprehensive Psychology, Swedish researchers Lena Forsell and Jan Astrom wrote, “A hug has great positive significance most of the time, although in some situations may be considered more of a social requirement, than a natural and free behavior.”

Which brings up the various holiday situations and whether to hug.

The first step, said Minnesota etiquette coach Julie Frantz (everydayetiquette.com), is to consider the situation and your relationship to the person you want to greet. Is it your boss? A client? A distant acquaintance?

“Typically in social situations, if you do not know the person then hugging is not the way to go,” Frantz said. “In a business situation, a handshake is the way to go.”

In less formal situations, she said, and one in which you perhaps don’t know the people as well, take a moment to read the room. How are other people greeting each other? More importantly, she said, read the body language of the person you’re about to greet.

“If their body language says distance and they thrust their hand out right away, then follow their lead and shake hands,” Frantz said.

If you decide that a hug is appropriate, “stay away from public displays of affection,” she said. “Avoid prolonged hugging, where maybe the back rubs are starting to happen. You want it to be a warm gesture of affection without becoming a public display of affection.”

A good, all-purpose hug is to step in, hug the other person (but not too tight) with a few pats on the back and then step apart, Frantz said.

Social kissing, on the other hand, takes the party greetings to a whole different level. Etiquette expert Jo Bryant (debretts.com), writing for Huffington Post, offered the following advice: When in doubt, don’t.

There are cultures in which social kissing is welcomed and even expected, so once again, read the room: Who’s at the party and how are they greeting each other?

Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas, wrote in Hitched magazine that you shouldn’t kiss someone you are meeting for the first time. She added that lip-to-lip kissing, at least in America, is appropriate only for those involved in a romantic relationship.

Otherwise, the one- or two-cheek kiss is appropriate — touching cheeks and lightly kissing the air.

“If it’s a man and a woman who are greeting each other, the lady proffers her cheek or cheeks,” British etiquette consultant William Hanson told The New York Times. “If she doesn’t want to kiss, she extends her hand. If it’s two women, it’s the senior one who sets the terms.”

Ultimately, Frantz said, it’s about paying attention to the other person and making every effort to ensure that they are comfortable. Follow that rule, she said, and the greeting will always be welcome.

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In the spirit of the holidays, we offer this handy how-to guide for navigating the various hugs you might encounter, share or accidentally give this season.
The Harmonic Convergence
In three easy steps:
1. Embrace the other person with a sense of deepest spiritual connection; like, it’s transcendent, you know?
2. Make full body contact to the point that your clothes form covalent bonds with those of the person you’re hugging.
3. Take shared, healing breaths, close your eyes, sway gently.
Who should: those with three minutes to kill and no sense of intimate space; wearers of “please ask me if I’ve been to Asia” batik; good friends of Mary Jane.
Where to: Bonnaroo; group therapy; CSA pick-up locations; Stonehenge.

The Failure to Communicate
In three easy steps:
1. One of you go in for a handshake, one of you go in for a hug.
2. The hugger looms over the handshaker like Dracula, the handshaker jabs the hugger in the stomach stick-’em-up style.
3. Titter, try again, but reverse the roles.
Who should: anyone with ego they’re willing to torch; those who actually do want to suck some blood or lift a wallet; those who’ve recently reanimated after thousands of years frozen in a Neanderthal-era ice floe and thus have no idea how humans act nowadays.
Where to: only on hard-surface floors, because the embarrassment-caused spontaneous combustion will ignite acrylic carpet.

The Stealth Side Squeeze
In three easy steps:
1. Sidle up next to the target until the two of you are side-by-side.
2. Slip an arm loosely around his or her waist or shoulders and squeeze once.
3. Let go and jovially exclaim “You. You!” Perhaps offer a chaser of finger guns.
Who should: neighbors who’ve had fairly vigorous fights about the dog poop situation but are now trying to make amends at the Christmas party; guys attempting to get with girls way out of their league; acquaintances trying to sell each other stuff.
Where to: middle school dances; Chamber of Commerce socials; unexpected grocery store encounters with your current teacher.

The Dude
In three easy steps:
1. Clasp hands in a manly shake.
2. Pull toward each other in a manly fashion, biceps flexed manfully, avoiding eye contact.
3. Pound each other on the back several times with a ready, manly fist, making no other bodily contact.
Who should: bros with NOTHING TO PROVE, OK; fraternity brothers who haven’t seen each other for a decade and don’t talk about That One Time; congressmen.
Where to: the Home Depot parking lot; hunting camp; any locker room where you don’t want to seem like an unenlightened troll, but still, dude.

The Prisoner
In three easy steps:
1. Descend upon an unwitting — and possibly unwilling — hug-ee.
2. Pinion their arms at their sides in a boa constrictor vise.
3. Squeeze tight, possibly lifting them off the ground.
Who should: anyone who thinks fruitcake is an appropriate Christmas gift; those who might accurately be described as “friendly” and “bear-like”; anyone prone to shouted greetings of “You’ve gotten so big!”
Where to: family reunions; high school graduations; seven microbrews into a Final Four party.

The Lurch
In three easy steps:
1. Stare at each other for a split-second of panicked uncertainty: What’s this? Are we hugging? We barely know each other! We’re hugging? Mayday! Mayday!
2. Lurch at each other with exquisitely mismatched timing.
3. End up hugging the other’s left arm, say, or neck.
Who should: those with the wherewithal to move to Turkmenistan or Burundi immediately, never to be seen or heard from again.
Where to: anywhere near a window you can fling yourself out of.

The Last Call
In three easy steps:
1. Stagger into each other.
2. Hang on for dear life.
3. Try not to barf.
Who should: anyone who, OK, maybe you just met an hour ago, but you’ve got a feeling, you know? It’s love. This. Is. Love.
Where to: beside the police car; out on the sidewalk that keeps moving, why does this sidewalk keep moving; inside the Graceland Wedding Chapel, home of the Original Elvis Wedding™.

The First Runner-Up
In three easy steps:
1. Locate the camera.
2. Lean in toward your hug target in a bottom-out, A-frame posture.
3. Lightly embrace their shoulders, suck in your stomach and say cheese. Or, oops, ha ha, say “Hiiiieeeeee!!!”
Who should: those who would kill that witch if they thought they could get away with it; anyone who gleefully wants to get a little closer and spot the tell-tale scars behind the ears; Miss Texas.
Where to: the Atlanta Junior League Holiday Gala; any competitive drag queen event; an unplanned encounter with a high school nemesis who is now fat, bwa ha haaaaaa!

The Distant European Cousin
In three easy steps:
1. Lightly grasp the other person’s upper arms.
2. Lean in to give a single- or double-cheek kiss, but never actually touch faces.
3. Drift apart in a spirit of deepest ennui.
Who should: those burdened with an excess of nihilism and inherited wealth; anyone with a first or last name that includes an umlaut; the spottily bearded with a BA in philosophy and an abiding conviction that everything is better in Paris.
Where to: fashionable parties in modernist apartments where it would be terribly, terribly gauche to eat the hors d’oeuvres; backstage at a couture show; Paris.

The Normal, Thank Heavens
In three easy steps:
1. Approach the hug target.
2. Hug him or her with moderate firmness and maybe a few back pats.
3. Step apart with feelings of friendship and gladness.
Who should: everyone. Everyone should give this hug.
Where to: everywhere. Please. Please make this your go-to hug.


Depending on the types of people you know, you might encounter a few different social kisses at various holiday gatherings. Excluding any romantic kiss, these encompass the various kisses that friends/co-workers/acquaintances might give you, or vice versa.

The Cupcake Cutie Pie
In three easy steps:
1. Stand far apart but lean toward each other, bending at the hips for ultimate bum cuteness.
2. Pucker up like a cartoon fish and lightly touch your lips together.
3. Kick a pointed toe up for maximum tee-hee.
Who should: unicorns at heart; those who embrace “all the world’s a stage” as a life motto; Zooey Deschanel.
Where to: Hello Kitty conventions; Japan; parties where the decor and refreshments resemble a phantasmagoric fever dream.

The Cheek-to-Cheek
In three easy steps:
1. Lean in until cheeks are touching.
2. Kiss the air but not the person.
3. Possibly repeat on the other side.
Who should: Europeans; Latin Americans; those who aspire to seem worldly and sophisticated in the manner of Europeans or Latin Americans.
Where to: art gallery openings where jazz is playing; gatherings in the homes of people who are very proud of their mid-century furniture; Europe, Latin America.

The Ummm…
In three easy steps:
1. Move in to kiss the target’s cheek.
2. Fail to anticipate that they’ll move their head at the last second.
3. Accidentally kiss them on the lips.
Who should: those who’ve completed their life mission.
Where to: anywhere that it’s OK to drop dead.
The It’s OK, I’m from New Jersey
In three easy steps:
1. Grasp the target’s face with both hands, a la Michael Corleone grasping Fredo.
2. Kiss him or her soundly, resoundingly on the lips.
3. Pat their cheeks before letting go, with a robust “Molto bene!”
Who should: anyone who knows a guy; those who fail to recognize that Westerners don’t roll that way; would-be Rat Packers who know all the words to “That’s Amore.”
Where to: New Jersey; New York; in fact, let’s just keep this out on the East Coast, OK?

The Milady
In three easy steps:
1. Raise the other person’s hand to your lips.
2. Kiss it.
3. Bask in the glow of the flutterings and swoonings, or at least the nonplussed speechlessness.
Who should: a single man in possession of a good fortune who is in want of a wife; those who unironically wear ascots; Peers of the Realm or, you know, theater majors.
Where to: in town during season; at Lord Bartleby’s ball (that scandalous rake!); at the opera, because why not?


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