When I was growing up in America, my family often hugged each other. Hugging was a way for us to show our love for each other. Whenever I wanted something special from my father, I would always first ask, "Dad, can I have a hug?" I knew that with these words I could melt his heart. After a hug, he was willing to do just about anything for me.
What is it about hugging that is so powerful? Somehow simply having another person's arms around us can make us feel unconditionally accepted.
When I moved to Asia, I learned that not all families hug each other as much as mine. In fact, many of my Asian friends confided that hugging rarely occurs in their homes.
A few years ago, I accompanied a friend to his parents' home in Japan. He hadn't seen his parents for two years. When we entered his home, I expected his parents to immediately embrace him. Instead, his father just raised his hand and said hello. His mother happily welcomed him home, but she did it from across the room.
In the West, people hug for many different reasons. Family and friends sometimes hug just to show the other person they care. They may hug a loved one that they haven't seen for a while. Or hug someone who will be leaving for a long period of time.
Hugs are also given to comfort someone who is sad or to congratulate someone who has good news.
Hugging reduces tension and raises self-esteem. Scientists even found that hugging can have a positive effect on a person's IQ!
Some of my Chinese friends think all Westerners love to hug. But some Western cultures encourage hugging more than others. The French, for example, are some of the most affectionate people in the world. Researchers have observed that the French touch each other more than 100 times during a 30-minute conversation. Americans, however, typically only touch each other twice during the same time period.
Italians and Greeks are known for giving lots of hugs. But British people, like Americans, tend to be a little more reserved about hugging.
Hope for non-huggers
If you live in a culture that doesn't hug, don't despair. Hugging is a behavior that can be learned over time. Take Americans, for example. In the past, many American families refrained from hugging. But over the last 20 years, American society has become more open to the idea. Now, nine out of 10 Americans say they use hugs to show their love.
Similarly, Chinese people have started to embrace the idea of hugging. Mary, one of my Chinese friends from Taipei, recently told me her story about hugging.
Mary learned about hugging when she studied abroad 20 years ago. Before that, her traditional Chinese family never hugged. But when she returned from overseas, her parents enjoyed it when she started giving them hugs.
During her last visit home, she was in a hurry to leave. As she was leaving, her 80-year-old mother called out to her. "Don't go yet; you forgot something," her mother said. Mary turned around and saw her mother with her arms opened wide. Mary went over and gave her an enormous hug.