21st of January is National Hugging DayTM, yes that’s right an annual day dedicated to hugging. It was created by an American, Kevin Zaborney in 1986 to encourage everyone to hug friends and family more. How about hugging at work though? Where are the boundaries and when is it ok?

Personal contact at work

In some organisations there may be hard and fast rules about hugging or being in close contact at work. This tightrope subject can be a topic staff only speak about when inappropriate. We all have thresholds and boundaries about what we deem appropriate closeness. This will vary depending on our cultural framework and the environment we grew up in. Allan Pease’s work on body language defines these zones in Western cultures as follows:

  • Public zone: over 3.6 m
  • Social Zone: 1.2-3.6 m
  • Personal Zone: 46 cm-1.2 m
  • Intimate Zone: 15-46 cm

It’s not surprising then that many of us feel uncomfortable in close proximity to someone we are unfamiliar with. It could feel overwhelming, intimidating or odd even if that isn’t the intention. What about other scenarios that seem straightforward in British workplace culture, but may not be?

Cultural differences in relation to contact

Shaking hands is a classic example of how we primarily greet people in Western society, over hugging at work. How could this possibly be offensive or upsetting? Isn’t this political correctness gone mad? I hear people say this, but not all cultures will welcome this way of greeting. For a global handshake guide the BBC Capital has a great article. Not only could it be linked to religious belief, but in can also be deep-rooted in historical cultural practices. If unsure, you can take the lead from the other person and see whether they offer you their hand. Needless to say, a friendly hello and warm smile will convey the message that someone is welcome without a handshake.

How personal contact can be misconstrued

Leaning over someone’s desk can take many forms. It could be friendly, conspiratorial, intimidating, flirtatious and/or unwanted. The nature of the interaction, the conversation and emphasis of what is trying to be achieved will be paramount. The person whose desk it is, is likely to demonstrate how they feel through their body language. It may not be inappropriate, but it may not create the optimum working environment for others in an open plan space. In terms of accessible communication it is best not speak over someone’s shoulder. If a colleague lip reads or has a hearing impairment this is bad practice. Asking to sit opposite them where they can see your face is far better.

Isn’t it common sense?

When we know someone quite well and they are visibly upset it is natural to comfort them by putting an arm around them. In most cases the intention is one of kindness and concern. As professional adults we are more than likely to know when this is appropriate. In certain circumstances we will not know how someone will respond to touch. Colleagues who are on the autism spectrum may be over-sensitive to touch. These sensory differences can affect behaviour. The National Autistic Society has a helpful guide to autism and sensory differences.

Aren’t there clear cut cases?

How about a woman touching a fellow female colleague’s pregnant stomach? This scenario elicits much laughter in the training room. With some women shouting an emphatic “NO” and the other half of the room saying they wouldn’t mind. Again, it’s not always clear-cut. The element that is clear here is around familiarity and asking of it’s ok. Equally, most women would be less annoyed if a woman did this, but angry if a man did this. Referring back to zones, this is someone coming into the personal zone and being overly personal. The consensus in the room is always if you really want to “touch my tummy” ask me and I will let you know!

Personal approaches

I like to hug, especially when I haven’t seen a colleague for sometime or I have had a rough day. Luckily no-one has complained about me and I haven’t felt uncomfortable receiving hugs. I fully appreciate this won’t be everyone’s preference. More often than not you can sense if someone is a “hugger”. A classic example is prior to the Christmas break and colleagues will be wishing each other all the best, some people will go for a hug and others for a distant wave. Tim Sackett’s HuffPost blog 11 Rules for Hugging at Work is a definitive guide.

I use these scenarios in my training workshops to ignite discussions about culture, bullying and harassment. The key message is to understand your audience, know where they may be coming from, ask if it’s ok and be aware of workplace boundaries. In the meantime, enjoy hugging those in your intimate zone!