After one particularly confounding interaction (me, in a goofy voice: How about a handshake? Acquaintance: Awwww, just come here!) I looked for expert counsel. Slate's advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, offered her sympathy: "I'm with you on this, but I've become a non-hugger who hugs. Recently after breakfast with a new friend I went in to hug her goodbye and I could see a kind of horror in her eyes, but it was too late to back off and say, 'I'm really not a hugger, either.' " That's me: The girl with the look of horror in her eyes.
Next I e-mailed NPR's resident etiquette expert, Karen Grigsby Bates. She suggested that "the hug is the American answer to the European double-cheek kiss" and that it's "descended from the American ethos of hyper-friendliness. You know, the same impulse that has us calling people we hardly know by their first names." She recommended that I just stick out my hand and say "so nice to see you again" to pre-empt the hug. Very reasonable, but please refer to the parenthetical above to see why this doesn't always work.
I also did some research on the Web site for the Emily Post Institute, which specializes in manners. It explains that, when greeting someone, you should look him or her in the eyes and smile, speak clearly, say the person's name, add a "glad to see you" or "how's it going" and then shake hands, right hand to right hand, palm to palm, thumbs up, with a firm grip (not too tight, not too limp), pump two to three times, and then release. The institute further suggests adding a hug "if it's a relative or close friend." No mention of friends of friends or friends' dates. Nor any specific information on what a proper hug entails. When I pointed this out to the extremely well-mannered Daniel Post Senning (great-great-grandson of Emily Post and the institute's manager of online content), he mused that, unlike the handshake, there is no standard-hug format. He did suggest some basic guidelines: Don't squeeze too hard, don't sneak a kiss, and don't linger. Crucially, for my purposes, he also noted that greetings should be preceded by a "moment of consideration" when you ask yourself "is this appropriate?" If I'm the intended recipient of your hug, the answer is probably "no."
There are several hug alternatives, among them: the handshake, the cheek kiss, the wave, the arm squeeze, and the nod. Handshakes seem formal, cheek kisses un-American, waves rather odd. Arm squeezing (warm, but not falsely so) would be a good solution if it weren't for the danger of getting pulled into something more full-bodied. The nod, though, can be very effective when combined with a smile, especially when executed with confidence and with one hand already grasping the door handle.