My best friend in UCD is a serial-hugger. He hugs indiscriminately – men, women, children, dogs, senior lecturers and even heads of state! Sometimes there’s a bit of cheek kissing, other times not. With men he meets it’s usually a big strong hug; one arm over your shoulder, the other under the opposite arm pit. It’s diagonal in composition, and allows for good gripping and a deep intimate embrace. Occasionally there is a little bit of backslapping. Sometimes there are two hugs in the space of a short meeting, one as a greeting, one as a farewell. I’ve become accustomed to his embraces, which by Irish standards are pretty lengthy. Recently, I’ve been paying attention to men’s reactions when they receive one of my buddy’s hugs; and I must admit from a masculinities perspective it’s extremely interesting (and at times very amusing).
Irish men in particular, are not the most tactile bunch, especially with other men. I know I am making a broad generalization here, and I’m speaking from a man’s perspective; but I think many will agree, Irish men are not huggers. We like our personal space and in some cases a handshake is as intimate as we are comfortable getting. Our fear of intimacy with other men is rooted in traditional hegemonic notions of masculinity. In other words, the traditional notion of being a man doesn’t include being touchy-feely with other men. This is due to a deep-rooted fear of what others might think about us, as men. Those who prescribe to very traditional notions of being a man are all too often homophobic or are afraid of their heterosexual masculinity being called into question.
Traditional masculinity is heterosexual, and many men feel the pressure to assert their heterosexuality through the ways in which they speak, act and do. Despite all this, masculinity is always in flux and changing. The masculinities of my grandfather’s generation are very different to that of today. My grandfather and his peers would never have gone around hugging each other. In fact O’Donoghue (2005) found that in one Irish male teacher training college during 1928-1938, homophobia was so institutionalized that male teachers in training were not allowed to go out in pairs for fear they would develop affections for each other. And if two men were found in a bathroom at the same time they would be expelled from the college. However, times have changed in Ireland and masculinities have slowly changed along with it.
Today our ideas about masculinities allow for a little more physical contact with other men than before. However, there are strict social rules guiding this physical contact. Hugging and other forms of bodily contact among men are most socially accepted within the context of sports. You may witness celebratory hugs in football when men score goals, or after a successful rugby game, or you may observe a mighty bone crushing bear hug in wrestling, and so on. However, giving a hug publically as an everyday greeting or farewell lies beyond the transgression zone for many men, and is just a little too ‘touchy feely’. Many Irish men will hug at airport arrival and departure lounges, funerals, after a night of heavy drinking and so on, but not to say hello or goodbye to a male friend or acquaintance. A delicate blend of stoicism, prudishness and historic chastity ensure many of us Irish keep physical contact to a minimum.
And so to return to my best friend in UCD, who I recently witnessed hugging three men in the space of thirty minutes, more hugging than an Irish man might do in a year! The first two men to receive hugs were senior lecturers. The first lecturer visibly flinched on hugging impact and shot out an elbow blow to my buddy’s ribs, then followed through with a pat on my good friend’s head. The lecturer was aware of his spontaneous reaction and he joked about it. A short while later, a second lecturer was to fall victim to my friend’s affectionate embrace. In true serial hugger style, my friend managed to hug this second lecturer before he had time to realize what was going on. The lecturer’s typical at a distance Irish greeting was foiled by my buddy’s quick hugging.
This second lecturer was completely disarmed by my friend’s hug, like a distressed pug his eyes bulged and stared vacantly towards the heavens.
He was visibly in denial about the incident and the hug was not acknowledged. Like a true Irish man this lecturer talked as if nothing just happened and avoided eye contact. The conversation was brief but all the while this lecturer was making advances in the opposite direction to my buddy and me, probably in fear of being hugged good-bye. The third hug recipient was a fellow student. He was considerably younger than the two lecturers, and he received the hug more graciously. Barely a flinch, the younger man received the hug and made no visible sign of emotional distress, however, he did not reciprocate my friend’s degree of hug-enthusiasm.
Traditional gender norms are not the only possible issue at play here in explaining the two lecturers reactions to by buddy’s serial hugging. As men, they very well may prescribe to traditional notions of masculinity, where heterosexuality is asserted through particular types of physicality, which do not include hugs as greetings or farewells. Traditional masculinity allows for men’s physicality when beating lumps out of each other, doing hard labor or taking part in competitive sport, not as signs of endearment or affection. However, another aspect to the men’s reaction may be found in the formalized institutional culture of universities. Although my friend is a mature student, he is still a student. A student hugging a lecturer transgresses the normative social rules between student and lecturer. This may have contributed, in part, to the lecturer’s unease at receiving my friend’s hug.
Either way, my buddy’s serial hugging makes for interesting study of social interaction between men. It’s amazing how the simple act of one man putting his arms around another man can present us with such a sequence of interesting interactions. I think many men could learn from my friend’s serial hugging; a few extra hugs a day might help keep harmful notions of masculinity at bay!
© Clay Darcy, Oct 2015.
O’Donoghue, D. (2005) ‘’Speak and act in a manly fashion’: the role of the body in the construction of men and masculinity in primary teacher education in Ireland’, Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 14 (2), 231-52.
Bio: Clay is a PhD Candidate at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin. To read more about Clay visit http://www.irishsociologyblog.com or http://www.claydarcy.com or follow him on Twitter @. This blog was originally posted at http://www.irishsociologyblog.com.