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KISSING OFF THE SOCIAL HUG

Astonishing new testimony has come to light in connection with the issue of socially promiscuous hugging.

Miss Manners had always understood the difference of opinion to be whether embraces should be used to inspire warm human feelings or warm human feelings should be present before people are inspired to embrace.

Much as she deplores the techniques used by the advocates of hugging-without-benefit-of-relationship, she believed that they felt that the results would be beneficial. If they sprang on people with whom they were not on close terms and enveloped them in their arms, it was to give those otherwise isolated souls a glowing sense of being valued. If they directed others to hug one another, it was because they anticipated the act would turn strangers into friends.

This is why Miss Manners had felt it her duty to pass on testimony that this wasn't working. Not everyone feels in need of charitable tokens of affection, and a great many want to retain the privilege of choosing their own friends at their own pace. A recent airing of the issue brought on a new slew of letters from Gentle Readers who were fleeing individuals, churches and social events to avoid being summarily hugged.

What took Miss Manners by surprise was a letter from former president Jimmy Carter that surfaced in news reports about the firing of the president of Habitat for Humanity on charges of sexual harassment. It seems that when charges had arisen previously, the former president used himself as an example of someone whose hugs could be misunderstood.

It is not Miss Manners' purpose here to deal with the serious issue of sexual harassment. While that can be mistaken for -- or passed off as -- social hugging, sexual harassment is properly a legal issue while social hugging is an etiquette one.

What disturbed her about the former president's description of innocent behavior was his saying that he had bestowed hugs and cheek kisses that were unwelcome on both professional and social acquaintances. He wrote that at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Library, he had kissed the late president's widow and she had "visibly flinched." Another incident, which he omitted, was that he had kissed the British queen mother, who roundly expressed her displeasure for a long time afterward.

So why -- after finding that these actions caused annoyance -- did he keep doing it? And why do others persist in believing that bestowing unauthorized hugs and kisses on those they hardly know constitute a benefit?

At the protocol level, it is dangerous even to be a passive recipient of such gestures. Embracing someone confers general approval, both on the individual and on what he represents -- now, in the future and regardless of whatever may be dug up about the past. Photographs have a tendency to surface when such approval becomes damaging. So prudence ought to dictate keeping one's arms to one's side in professional situations at any level.

That politicians are sometimes imprudent does not shock Miss Manners. That people who seem to care about spreading kindness will persist after they discover that their behavior offends people does shock her.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners at MissManners@unitedmedia.com.

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