Hugs happen in many different situations.
What was the last situation in which you hugged someone?
There are many different answers people can give to this question. For example, some people will say, “I recently kissed someone else as a greeting,” and others will mention a heartfelt hug from their romantic partner. But hugs can also happen in sad situations, like when you’re trying to comfort someone after something bad has happened.
Additionally, many of us also hug many different people, from friends at a party to family and partners. Because of this great diversity of hugs, several blogs and entertainment websites have published articles that characterize different types of hugs. Some of these oft-mentioned types of hugs include “the awkward men’s hug”, “the romantic hug”, and the “side hug”.
In a recent scientific paper (Ocklenburg et al., 2022), a team of international hug researchers argued that categorizing hugs into such types is not optimal for psychological research (Note: I was the first author of the article).
For one thing, these types of hugs can promote harmful gender stereotypes. Why should a hug between two men be more awkward than any other gender combination? Surely there are also awkward hugs involving people who identify as non-male.
On the other hand, the categorization of hugs into types focuses very much on one dimension (for example, the gender or romantic status of those involved). However, hugs have a lot more functionality that gets lost when categorized like that. Therefore, we suggested that we can better understand hugs if we assess several characteristics that characterize a hug.
What characteristics characterize a hug?
So what are the most important characteristics of a hug? In the post, we discuss the following ten features.
1. The number of people (or animals) involved.
The first important characteristic of a hug is the number of people involved. Most hugs are between two people, but sometimes people hug themselves. Group hugs are not uncommon either, for example in sports teams after a successful goal. Finally, some people also hugged their pets.
2. The duration of the hug.
People differ a lot in the length of their hug. The average hug lasts just over three seconds, but some people hug for several minutes. Previous research has shown that the duration of the hug is related to how people feel about it, with a hug of five or ten seconds being perceived as emotionally more positive than a hug of one second. So a good hug would last about five to ten seconds for most people. However, there is also an upper limit to the duration of a pleasant hug. For most people, hugs can get awkward after a while, so make sure you don’t hold them for too long.
3. The movement of different parts of the body.
A hug between two people can feel very different – from just light contact to full body contact. Thus, it is important to characterize the movement of the different body parts involved in a hug. These include the arms (are both arms used, or just one?) and hands (where are they placed?) of everyone involved in the hug.
Additionally, upper body (are people showing chest and/or shoulder contact?), lower body (are people showing leg contact or is there space between the lower body?) and the head (is there any form of head contact, such as kissing or putting the head on the other person’s shoulder?) Although one might assume that more body contact may be related to a more sincere embrace or stronger emotions, this relationship is not well understood scientifically. Likely, it is strongly modulated by preferences regarding personal space and being touched.
4. The amount of pressure applied.
It has been suggested that greater pressure in a hug indicates more positive emotions towards the person being hugged. Therefore, the tightness of the hug and the amount of pressure applied to the other person must be measured.
5. The lateral character of the hug.
It has been found that most people prefer hugs with the right arm leading the hug and either the left or right arm leading the hug is an important feature of the hug. Research has shown that in emotionally significant situations, there is a leftward shift of the hugging arm, so the sideways is an important feature of a hug.
6. The relationship between people who kiss.
The relationship between the people hugging each other is another important feature of the hug. Most people who kiss know each other before, but not all of them. People kissing can be romantic partners, parents, children, family members or friends. However, sometimes we would also hug people we didn’t know before, for example, when we hugged someone who had just been introduced to us as a friend of a friend at a party. .
Most of the time, we would have an emotionally positive relationship with the people we hug. Neutral relationships can also be the case, for example, when you hug someone we barely know as a greeting at a social event. Sometimes some people even hug other people with whom they have an emotionally negative relationship. For example, this can happen when you hug an estranged family member at a funeral due to social pressure from another family member to do so.
7. The emotional significance of the situation.
Regardless of the nature of the relationship between the people hugging, hugs can occur in emotionally positive situations (like giving your partner a sincere hug), emotionally neutral situations (like giving a brief hug in greeting ) and emotionally negative situations (like hugging a grieving friend at a funeral to make them feel better).
8. The cultural background of people kissing.
The culture we come from strongly affects the way we hug. Cultural conventions (eg, how conservative or liberal society is) strongly affected the amount of social contact such as kissing people. Younger, more liberal people in less conservative countries kiss more than older people in conservative countries.
9. The personalities of the people who kiss.
How long sometimes likes to hug another person strongly depends on their personality. People who demonstrate high interpersonal openness also enjoy social contact such as hugs to a greater extent than less open people. In contrast, people with high neuroticism have a lower preference for touching other people than less neurotic people.
10. The role of trauma.
Finally, it is important to consider that not everyone enjoys being hugged by others. Some may have suffered a trauma that can make a hug uncomfortable or even trigger anxiety and panic. For example, patients with an anxiety disorder or PTSD have been shown to prefer more personal space around them to feel comfortable than healthy controls. So, if someone doesn’t want to be hugged, it’s very important to respect that wish and keep in mind that it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t like you.