Donald Trump outraged fair-minded progressives the world over when he called France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron “beautiful,” just after hugging and kissing her in Paris last week. Yet how was his behavior different from virtually every other business leader or politician?
A better question is: Why is it commonplace for men to greet each other with a firm handshake, then offer a hug and kiss to their female counterparts? The behavior is an anachronism, a perpetuation of gender bias, and it should stop.
Hugging and kissing should be reserved for close personal relationships, or it should be equally distributed. In some cultures — Jewish, Greek — men frequently hug and kiss each other. So why don’t we all?
The bright-line rule in business is no hugs. I contacted the Society for Human Resource Management, and a spokesperson told me that unlike other cultures, an embrace is not something generally accepted in the United States. “If a hug replaces a handshake, it is likely on a case-by-case basis and not something encouraged by an employer,” said spokesperson Kate Kennedy.
Peggy Newfield, who runs the American School of Protocol, keeps it very simple when it comes to hugs. “It’s best to keep your hands to yourself,” she said.
But this isn’t how things play out in reality. In informal social settings, hugging and kissing among platonic members of the opposite sex is typical. Jerry Seinfeld dedicated an entire episode of his show to the issue. In “The Kiss Hello,” which aired in 1995, Seinfeld’s character obsesses.
“Frankly, outside of a sexual relationship I don’t see the point to it,” he said. “I’m not thrilled with all the handshaking either, but one step at a time.”
Twenty-two years later, life imitated art, when Seinfeld was interrupted in the middle of a red carpet interview by pop-singer Kesha who wanted a hug. He repeatedly refused her attempts, later explaining that he was unaware of who she was and that he just isn’t a hugger.
The reality is, socialized hugging and kissing are rampant in all settings — casual, business, and politics. Watch any president walk through the House of Representatives before and after his State of the Union address — it’s a melee of handshakes for men and kisses for women. On the campaign trail it’s no different — consider former Vice President Joe Biden, a natural-born hugger.
At business events, like the annual holiday party, coworkers of the opposite sex let down their guard, and embracing abounds.
What is the harm? Perhaps none, if it is mutually affirmed among close friends or even longtime colleagues in an appropriate environment. My concern is that this outdated social norm operates on autopilot. The casual hug might seem innocent. But it slowly erodes gender equality, in that it subtly suggests that men treat each other with the professional handshake, while women get a peck on the cheek. It might not be deliberate, but nor are most biases.
At the end of the Seinfeld episode, Jerry is universally derided for refusing to participate in social kissing. So too, I’m sure, will the comment section reflect contempt. Have at it. If you happen to agree, great. But no hugs please.
Mike Ross is an attorney and former Boston city councilor. He writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.