In which I am completely baffled

According to the New York Times, hugging is the new scourge of American teenage social conventions.

Now, okay, in my experience the NYT tends to blow its "life & style" reporting totally out of proportion: whether it's women's communities or sexuality, or the supposed life and times of the American Teenager, their discussion of current trends is heavily skewed toward creating a sensational story rather than accurately narrating peoples lives. I realize I should just expect this and blow it off, but sometimes it really gets under my skin, and this is one of those times.

I mean, last I checked, hugging -- as long as it's wanted, affectionate touch -- was a relatively harmless way to spend one's time. It's usually indicative of positive, rather than negative, social interactions. But clearly, I was being naive.

A measure of how rapidly the ritual is spreading is that some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in. And schools from Hillsdale, N.J., to Bend, Ore., wary in a litigious era about sexual harassment or improper touching — or citing hallway clogging and late arrivals to class — have banned hugging or imposed a three-second rule.

Parents, who grew up in a generation more likely to use the handshake, the low-five or the high-five, are often baffled by the close physical contact. “It’s a wordless custom, from what I’ve observed,” wrote Beth J. Harpaz, the mother of two boys, 11 and 16, and a parenting columnist for The Associated Press, in a new book, “13 Is the New 18.”

“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”

. . .

Comforting as the hug may be, principals across the country have clamped down. “Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory,” said Noreen Hajinlian, the principal of George G. White School, a junior high school in Hillsdale, N.J., who banned hugging two years ago. “It was needless hugging — they are in the hallways before they go to class. It wasn’t a greeting. It was happening all day.”

And just in case you thought (as I do, actually, despite protestations to the contrary) this was yet another instance of old fogies being unhealthily interested in, and hysterical about, the cultural expressions of youth,

There are, too, some young critics of hugging.

Amy Heaton, a freshman at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md., said casual social hugging seemed disingenuous to her. “Hugging is more common in my opinion in people who act like friends,” she said. “It’s like air-kissing. It’s really superficial.”

Read the entire article here.

There are many layers of wrong about the way this story is being narrated, one of which is the way it is being reported as a newsworthy phenomenon in the first place. Conventions of touch change over time and from culture to culture; as one letter to the editor pointed out, in Europe teenagers tend to show more casual physical affection with each other than American teenagers have, at least historically. People who work with immigrant and exchange students can tell you that young people who come to America from certain parts of the globe -- Europe, Latin America -- are surprised by what the perceive as the lack of physical affection between their American peers, while young people from other cultures -- for example, Japan -- have higher expectations of personal space, and find Americans to be physically intrusive.

While an international, historical perspective can understandably get lost in a fluffy news story, much more upsetting to me, in terms of media perceptions of young people, is the way adolescent physical contact is portrayed as problematic. There are three facets to this, all of which I find fascinating and extremely frustrating.

1. "Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory." I'm most floored by the way this article totally fails to meaningfully distinguish between erotic and non-erotic touch, and also by the way it implicitly equates erotic touch with "very dangerous territory." This isn't unexpected, given adult hysteria about teenage sexuality, but nevertheless it pisses me off. The students in this article, who have a complex understanding of different kinds of touch and what social and personal meanings they carry, come across as vastly more mature than the school officials who hint at promiscuity. Rather than respond by clamping down, I'd say this is a perfect opportunity to open conversations about how people can communicate about wanted and unwanted touch, and respect each others' preferences for the same.

2. "If somebody were to not hug someone, to never hug anybody, people might be just a little wary of them and think they are weird or peculiar." Closely related to the spectre of sexual harassment is the possibility of bullying (which is very real) that gets invoked as a reason to curtail physical contact. This is lazy thinking, lazy educating, and lazy supervising. If you're worried about bullying, then get serious about reducing the abuse of power exercised by some students over others, and protecting the vulnerable students so that they don't live their lives in fear. Imposing arbitrary limits on touch will not make the problem go away, it will just shift it elsewhere -- possibly somewhere less visible than the school hallway.

3. "To maintain an atmosphere of academic seriousness." This is the most laughably transparent exercise of adult power in the interest of social control. I realize I'm prone to seeing schools as sites of institutional power and violence but oh, please. Touch and positive relationships are antithetical to both intellectual endeavors and "seriousness"? Some of the adults in this story need to re-think their priorities a little. As one letter-writer suggests, "those principals need to lighten up and give kids a chance to work out for themselves what is “needless” and what is important."

No one asked me what to make of this 'trend' but I'm going to offer my two cents anyway (isn't that what blogs are for?): I think young folks today are pretty much the same creatures we human beings have always been. That is, creatures capable of inefficiency, frivolity, social ineptness, and cruelty -- and also creatures who by and large crave meaningful relationships with one another that include physical affection. I'd argue that casual touch, both inside and outside spaces of education, is not a distraction from learning or a trivial meaningless fad -- but rather a valuable pathway toward discovering what kinds of physical intimacy feel good and communicate effectively what we desire to communicate. Instead of cracking down on physical affection, help young people find language to effectively express their desires.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I wanted to write about this on my own blog as I live in the Northern NJ area and have a few friends who graduated from the school featured in the NY Times article - I just couldn't figure out what to say.

    Its amazing that this isn't satire.
    Its saddening that we live in a world where something as innocent as a hug can cause controversy.