JH Pearl

Associate Professor of English at Florida International University

The Awkwardest Hug

Full vitae awkward hug

Image: jiunn kang too, Creative Commons

"Embrace the positive," writes Karen Kelsky, author of The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. "Embrace the possibility," she advises. "Embrace selling your skills." There’s nothing in the book about embracing the interviewer, because no one — or almost no one — needs to be told not to press one’s body against the body of a potential employer who could jot down on a copy of your CV, "Hugged me, inexplicably."

It’s advice I myself could have used about a decade ago on a campus visit — that stage of an academic job search when prospective colleagues try to figure out: "Can I listen to this person in department meetings, perhaps for the rest of my life?" Or maybe: "Good God, is he going to hug me every time he sees me?"

The year before, I’d taken a great job at a university in Puerto Rico, but my partner couldn’t pursue her own career there. Unfortunately, when you’re on the faculty job market, you can’t just pick another city, or apply to any institution you like.

Each hiring cycle, there’s a handful of jobs in my field, 18-century British literature. Committees get hundreds of applications. That was true when I was on the market, and it’s only gotten worse. At the time, I’d been thinking of leaving the profession if I didn’t get any offers. Then I landed a campus interview for a good job in Florida. And the visit went well — until the final night.

They invited me to dinner at the home of a Cuban woman, who greeted me at the door in a way that is common in the Caribbean, hugging me and kissing my cheek, which I returned reflexively. Then I looked around and saw a roomful of colleagues, all showing various degrees of unwillingness to hug the guy in a badly fitting suit who, earlier that day, had gone on and on about Robinson Crusoe’s loneliness — which suddenly felt like mine.

Normally, I err on the side of affection. My family hugs and kisses, and says "I love you" at the end of every phone call. But in that room, it felt like I had crossed a line, however passively. I moved toward the rest of them and extended my hand.

Academics overthink things, obsess over minutiae. So I couldn’t help worrying the entire evening about how I would say goodbye to these people. Would the host hug me again? Should I hug all of them this time, as I left? What would it look like to hug her, a second time, and shake hands with everyone else?

During dinner, I said one thing, thought another. Someone asked about my job in Puerto Rico, and I gave a well-practiced answer. But I was thinking: Could I do the two-handed handshake? The handshake with a hand on the opposite shoulder, a kind of semi-hug?

The host gave me a bowl of her "famous flan," a dessert I’ve always disliked, but I spooned in every bite, proclaiming it delicious. Maybe a handshake that turned into a hug, the one where you start formally, then think better of it and pull the other person in? Or that thing where you put your hands on the opposite person’s shoulders, both of you just looking squarely at one another like lunatics?

I told them their students had impressed me. Also the department’s collegiality, and the pretenure sabbatical and the funding for travel and conferences. Maybe I could head off the host and put my hand out first? But how do you revert from a hug to a handshake? And how do you hug one person in front of another and not hug the other person, too?

By this point, we’d talked for two hours. Familiarity was established. We’d eaten flan.

After dinner, as I prepared to leave, the Cuban host walked right up and wrapped her arms around me, pecking my cheek — not an air kiss, a real one — in front of a receiving line of wooden-looking white women. And for a second, I tried assessing different levels of intimacy, thinking of tailoring my goodbyes person-by-person. No kisses, obviously. Maybe just hugs for the women, handshakes for the men. Or wait and let them dictate?

But something snapped. I lost my nerve and went for it, opting for consistency, leaning in and embracing the Miltonist lightly, which she accepted, a little rigid but unruffled.

Then there was the medievalist, a tall woman in her 60s. How uptight could a teacher of The Miller’s Tale be? On the other hand, medievalists aren’t usually thought of as suave or polished. I reached in and did the same, and she recoiled and shuddered, saying, "Oh … I didn’t know … um … I’m sorry … nice to meet you, too. … " The hug was very A-frame, not more than a hand on one arm and a little contact on the back — but clearly more than she wanted or expected.

Smooth jazz played on the speakers as I backed up, smiled, and tried to act unbothered, anything to stop the weirdness. And ironically, the two of us were now on the same page, equally discomfited by the fact that we had no idea what the other was thinking. I continued down the line, shaking hands with the rest of them, and headed toward the door, taking what seemed like my last look at these people.

They saw me as sexist, presumptuous, worse. Like that time I hugged a stranger on the street, thinking it was an old friend from high school, almost spilling the poor woman’s coffee before she shook her head and slowly backed away. Then there was that wedding in a church when I hugged an old man during the "peace be with yous" — causing him, in a split second, to panic and straighten his torso into a posture of defense.

Later that night, I curled up at my hotel and thought about the future. What other skills did I have? Besides hugging.

But Monday came, and to my surprise they called and offered the job. And of course I took it. Maybe the medievalist felt at fault. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe they’d all just made their peace with hugging or not hugging and just feeling awkward sometimes.

There’s a tendency for job seekers in all careers to aggrandize themselves self-deprecatingly, enlarging but also regretting every little answer, every little reaction, assuming we have more power than we actually do to ruin everything.

And all of us overfreight hellos and goodbyes. They’re important gestures, but there’s no common language. My family’s Lebanese and very effusive. But I grew up in New England, the opposite of that. And in Miami, some people do one kiss, some two, some three, some even four. Of course, all this would have been even harder were I queer or female. You can’t count on tolerance or open-mindedness even among English professors.

In the ensuing years, the medievalist and I became friends, talking in the hallway and on the path to the parking lot, lingering outside our cars as we complained about the governor and state politics. I learned simply to smile and wave a hand as a gesture of goodbye. And all this time, I’ve been telling the story of the hug, always as a joke at my expense: I’m neurotic! Overfriendly! My head’s in the clouds, exactly as you’d think!

Now there’s more perspective. The medievalist retired last year, and the chair threw a party. Near the end, I walked over and told her what a good colleague she’d been and said something about all the work she’d done for the union. The infamous hug never came up. I just hugged her again, and this time she returned it.

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