Where’s ‘the line’? A comparative look at hugging ideologies in male friendships, the US and the Netherlands

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By Zoë Crabtree

Abstract: Do the complexities of male homosocial interactions confound you? I have taken those very interactions as my focus for this paper in an endeavor to form a greater understanding of heterosexual male friendship dynamics. I have employed Ilana Gershon’s media ideologies and an ethnographic research methodology to explore the tension between individual agency and larger cultural “idioms of practice” within both Dutch and American male friendships.

Introduction

During orientation, my coaches – two Dutch guys –struck me as being overtly physical with each other. In clubs, they hung on each other, even kissing on the cheek, which in America would typically cross “the line” –the unspoken border delineating acceptable and unacceptable social behaviors. This led me to wonder about the nature of same-sex male friendships in the Netherlands in comparison to the United States. Were there more relaxed rules for friendship behavior – was “the line” in a different place – especially in terms of physical interaction?

Over a period of several weeks, I interviewed nine male subjects –four Americans [Donovan, Ethan, Michael, and Sam] and five Dutch [Adriaan, Anton, Eduard, Jonathan, and Stefan]. The interviews took place in various places, tending towards the public atmosphere of school buildings, though two were in my dorm’s common area and one was via Skype. The subjects were mostly social science students (exceptions being one film student and one physics student), all heterosexual (with the exception of Ethan who conceptualizes his sexuality more fluidly), primarily white (Sam has Hispanic heritage), and varied in age from nineteen to twenty-four. Each interview lasted between thirty minutes and an hour. I have assigned each interviewee a fictional name in order to maintain their anonymity.

These are the questions I used to structure the interviews: Describe your relationships with your guy friends. Which behaviors are acceptable? Which are taboo? Are there people with whom the taboos do not apply? What sorts of jokes do you have in your friend group? How do you communicate your friendship to each other? Do you hug your guy friends? What do various types of hugs/physical interactions mean to you? How does alcohol, a celebratory atmosphere, or the occurrence of a tragedy affect those interactions? Would you feel comfortable sleeping next to one of your guy friends? What is stereotypical masculinity in your culture? To what extent do you identify with it? To what extent/how do American and Dutch guys deploy different hugging ideologies?

I have used Gershon’s metaphor of media ideologies to conceptualize hugging practices among male friends. Whereas media ideologies analyze technologically mediated interpersonal communication, hugging ideologies analyze interpersonal communication mediated by face to face interaction in real time. Gershon describes media ideologies as:

…not true or false. An email conversation is not, in its essence, more formal than an instant message conversation… but some people believe that email is more formal… and this affects the way they send and interpret email messages. Understanding people’s media ideologies can give insights into what is really being communicated as opposed to what people believe is being communicated. It is not an analytical tool for discerning truth or reality; instead it is but one analytical tool for understanding the ways in which all communication is socially constructed and socially interpreted. (Gershon, 21, 2010, emphasis in original)

Gershon explains how different media are understood as more or less formal. For example, emails are more formal than instant messaging. Similarly, my interviewees described different physical interactions as being more or less formal; these associations ultimately affected how those behaviors would be used. I want to stress that what I will call hugging ideologies are comparable to Gershon’s media ideologies; both are “analytical tool[s] for understanding the ways in which communication is socially constructed” (21).

Gershon also introduces the concept of “idioms of practice,” or the way in which “groups of friends, classes, workers in an office will develop together their own ways of using media to communicate with each other” (39). Just as Gershon uses “idioms of practice” to apply to patterns of media behavior in small-groups, I want to use “idioms of practice” to apply to patterns of physical-interactional behavior not only locally –within friend groups –but also regionally –within each country’s broader culture.

I entered into the first interview with the assumption that I would encounter a greater amount of freedom for the Dutch guys to bend gendered norms. I quickly realized that those original assumptions were misguided; the broad culturally determined idioms of practice (Gershon) –that I was expecting to manifest in culturally specific hegemonic masculinities (Connell) –often manifested more locally and interpersonally. In fact, my subjects’ responses suggested a greater diversity of hugging ideologies within each culture than between them. My findings indicate that individual agency is a more influential factor in male youth’s hugging ideologies than hegemonic masculinity (Connell 2005).

My interview subjects did tend, perhaps prompted by my questions, to delineate the two cultures on a broad, generalized basis. They explained their hugging ideologies differently when discussing them in general, though the behaviors they described were often similar and similarly motivated. In other words, the differences seemed to exist more in stereotypes than in lived experience. My current understanding is that each culture has a set of coded behaviors –what I have termed “regional idioms of practice” –that are acceptable in same-sex friendships, but often the line that separates friend behavior from romantic behavior is highly personal and depends on the specific context and relationship in question.

A lexicon of hugs, handshakes, and other physical interactions

Though my paper is specifically on hugging ideologies, I will now discuss the use of a multitude of physical interactions –from hugs and handshakes to pats on the back and jovial punches –in order to create a larger context in which to view hugging in male friendships.

Hugs were largely defined as denoting “an entry and an exit of someone’s space” (Adriaan) and were often used when “you haven’t seen [a guy friend] for a long time” (Anton). Sam described them as “pivotal to opening and beginning everything,” a view that explained his extreme reluctance to engage in them, calling a hug both a “hyper-anxiety moment” and “a stressful event.”

Adriaan said they should be used “if you want to show [the recipient] that you feel intimate with them.” Donovan disagreed on the subject of intimacy, asserting he “wouldn’t say [his] relationships with [his] really good friends are intimate even though [they] have so much in common and talk about almost everything… [because] intimate sounds like a romantic relationship.”

Ethan differentiated between full body hugs (Fig. 1), side hugs (Fig. 2), and handshake-clap-on-the-back-hugs (Fig. 3). Full body hugs were either friendly or “fairly sexualized,” depending on whether the pelvis was engaged. Side hugs connoted a vibe of “male camaraderie.” He found handshake-clap-on-the-back hugs to be much more impersonal and artificial; only people who did not know him very well would engage him in one. Michael described a difference between “the big grunting groaning bear hug” –a version of the full body hug characterized by masculine gusto –and hugs that are more of a caress, claiming the first type was “certainly male,” though both conveyed warmth of feeling.

full body hug Side hug Handshake-clap-on-the-back hug

Full body hug; Side hug; Handshake-clap-on-the-back hug

Hugs were also classified based on the duration of contact. Eduard said that in his friend group “it’s agreed on [at] five seconds” whereas Donovan claimed they should last “maybe a second or two,” saying that longer hugs would mean either “you’re comforting someone or that you like that person.” Jonathan agreed that they should only last a second. Michael clarified that “there’s…a line [for the duration of physical contact]… you can’t go to the point of cuddling,” though clearly the line between friendly contact and cuddling varies from person to person. Further discussion of “the line” continues in the section on taboos.

Some subjects described handshakes, rather than hugs, as their go-to behavior. Handshakes were classified as “more formal” than hugs, signs of “respect and courteousness” (Michael), and often used “when you’re doing a favor for someone… [and a way to] express gratitude” (Donovan). While some preferred handshakes because of their formality, others avoided them for that reason. Sam identified himself as primarily a “handshake guy,” who might use “the shake with one hand and the other arm embrace” with his closest friends, and Donovan said handshakes were “always acceptable.” Stefan mentioned he used an “advanced hand shake,” which I understood was akin to a secret handshake shared between friends, with one of his guy friends as a greeting. However, Eduard preferred high fives to handshakes and Ethan said he did not handshake or high five his guy friends as much as he hugged them, crediting his preference in part to clammy hands. Anton avoided handshakes not because of their formality, but instead because of the awkward situations that developed because “you don’t know if you’re about to shake a hand or [give a fist bump].”

My respondents were more ambivalent about pats on the back and amiable punches. Pats on the back were described as “very context dependent” (Ethan) “situational” (Michael) and “an intermediary between a handshake and a hug” (Michael). Ethan placed them as more familiar than hugs, saying he’d probably hug someone before patting them on the back, but others said they would use them more liberally than hugs. Ethan described punches as “working the same way a pat does” and Donovan said they were more common when he was at sport’s practice because “we’re already in a physical arena.” Michael used punches as a “sign of closeness” in a friendship.

Personal dynamics matter

When describing their hugging ideologies above, my interviewees often stressed the dependency of their behavior on the dynamic of a given personal relationship. However, only my Dutch subjects outlined this sentiment explicitly. Stefan stated, “It’s different with all my friends… with each person [I have] certain routines.” Anton elaborated, “I have very close friends that I would never hug… They’re just not huggy persons… but it just kind of depends on the person.” And Jonathan responded, “I just do what they [his good friends] like,” explaining that the amount of physical interaction “has more to do with the specific relationship, but there’s also a tendency to be more physical with the ones I’ve known longer, but not necessarily. It’s more about the personal aspect.” Eduard complicated the concept of adjusting one’s behavior to one’s friends, arguing that he thinks, if anything, his friends adjust more to him. He said, “I think I’m the hugger and other people know that…I have a couple introvert friends… and for them a handshake or high-five is just enough. That way I adjust to them, but I think they adjust more to me” (Eduard).

Some of my American subjects expressed these sentiments in different words, stating often that they did not want to make their friends or acquaintances uncomfortable by being “too forward” (Michael). Ethan placed this in the context of kissing his guy friends, again stressing the importance of feeling comfortable:

I mean like with anybody you have gradations within your friendships. So I have some people that I would be very weird about kissing on the lips; I have other people who –it’s kind of normal… It’s not even necessarily a matter of… emotional closeness or connection… it’s the sort of thing that I’m kind of ok with… I have some really really really really close friends who are not comfortable much beyond hugging. Then I have some people who I know well, but not incredibly well, who I trust and feel comfortable around [and] it’s just not that weird of a thing to be kissed. (Ethan)

He conveys a theme that many of my subjects communicated: patterns of physical behavior do not necessarily follow the lines of “closeness.” Instead, friends negotiate their own ways of interacting; sometimes the length of a relationship or the amount of time they spend together matters and sometimes it doesn’t.

The subjects can be divided loosely into two camps: One contingent, made up of subjects from both countries, described themselves as “generally pretty affectionate” (Ethan) and “very loving” (Eduard). These guys were more likely to give hugs in greetings and farewells, or for no specific reason. The other contingent, also of both nationalities, described themselves as “not particularly physical with [their] friends, especially [their] guy friends” (Donovan), adding “we’re not very touchy” (Anton). These guys were more likely to need a specific circumstance to share a hug, for instance, “…when you’re drunk or you’ve just won a sports game” (Anton). I will address hugging ideologies in contexts involving alcohol, celebratory and tragic atmospheres, and sleeping situations later on in this paper.

Defining “the line”: the nuances of taboos

When I asked about ‘taboo’ behaviors among guy friends, I got a variety of different answers ranging from “physical contact…below the chest area” (Sam) and the corresponding “touching somebody on his leg” (Anton) to “immediately hugging…or putting your arm around his shoulder [when you’ve just met]” (Anton) to only “touching the penis [between good friends]” (Eduard). Others included “tickling other guys” (Donovan), touching another guy’s hair or ears (Sam), sitting next to each other (“…if there’s a bench and there’s not enough room for both of us and our arms might be touching, one guy will stand” (Sam)), and kissing, either on the mouth or on the cheek (various respondents).

While some of these taboos were absolute, others took on taboo status only in certain circumstances. For instance, the nuances of when hugging a guy friend was acceptable were highly disputed. Anton cited hugging another guy as being taboo when they’ve just met or are not close friends. Sam stretched the length of acquaintanceship, saying hugging someone you’ve only known for “like a month” was “very weird” unless “you’re really really…clicked”; otherwise it’s only acceptable with “high school buddies or…roommates.” Eduard, the same guy who said among his close friends from childhood only touching each others’ penises would be off limits, conceded that “with the other guys [who he’s known for a few years], yeah maybe a hug is a little bit awkward.” Donovan wavered in his conviction that hugging someone he barely knew would be weird, saying “…even then it’s not that weird, it’s just like ‘yeah, I’m a person that likes hugs’…and people are like ‘wha-, uh, alright.” Whereas Adriaan disregarded length of friendship entirely, asserting, “it doesn’t matter how long you know them.”

Sometimes, as argued above, the right circumstances manifested themselves in the right company. In Sam’s words, there are “guys that I hang out [with] that are exceptions to the rules.” Sam named those guys as “my brother, my high school friends that I’ve known now for years…two of my roommates that are…really close and…family members really.” Donovan also said that there were different rules with his brother and some of his childhood friends.

Other times, the right circumstances require “a reason behind some sort of physical interaction [that] pretty much just completely null and voids homophobic anxiety” (Sam). I asked him if feeling close counted as a reason, and he responded in the negative, saying “even close friends can like be a little weirded-out sometimes” (Sam). Donovan also said “there needs to be a reason for [hugging]” otherwise “it’s because ‘I just want to touch you.’” The acceptable reasons Sam provided involved giving and receiving help, either help standing when drunk or help eating or changing clothes because of a physical disability.

The interviewees cited various reasons for certain behaviors being taboo. Sam said, “I just know that it’s not gonna be good for other people to see it” and because it would make an awkward situation. These sentiments were expressed by most of my American subjects, who generally seemed more concerned than my Dutch subjects that displays of affection on their part might be construed as homosexual–both in public, where they had anxiety about being harassed, and in private, where they tried to avoid creating awkward situations.

In response to my questions about why certain behaviors are taboo, Michael brought up the concept of “the line,” which he described as “a threshold of…acceptable levels of contact [and] unacceptable levels of contact” and explained, “as you become closer with someone, those barriers get broken down…[and] you know you both have a mutual level of care and understanding.” Ethan explained the breaking down of “the line” in close friendships differently:

I’ve found that the degrees of closeness and affection again get a little bit more complicated when you’re very close to a guy. I had a friend who said to me…“the better you know somebody, the more attracted you are to them”…I think that kind of works, ‘cause I have some male friends who I’ve never wanted to have sex with…but there is this sort of weird blurring of romantic attachment that happens… [and] a certain degree of physical closeness that I get at least. (Ethan)

Michael elaborated on navigating the line, likening the beginnings of friendship to “a dance” in which “you don’t want to make the other person uncomfortable,” and so you often “walk the line of acceptable behavior” as a way of mapping where it is in each situation. Acceptable and unacceptable levels of physical contact were usually measured against what could be considered as having romantic or sexual overtones, whether they were intended or not.

Sometimes the behaviors that are understood to be taboo in a culture’s common idiom of practice are viewed quite differently on an individual level. For example, Ethan, an American, explained regretfully:

I’m probably going to end up on the weird opposite spectrum, where I actually wish I could say that I’d had a relationship with a guy or been attracted to a guy. I feel like being heterosexual kind of limits you in terms of like romances and connections you can have with people and I really wish that wasn’t the case for me…. I’m kind of bothered by the fact that I haven’t had like a physical relationship with a guy and haven’t felt the desire to do that. (Ethan)

Drunkenness, celebration, tragedy, and sleeping

In order to more clearly understand the nuances of hugging ideologies in different situations, I presented my respondents with a series of loose scenarios and asked them how they would behave in each one.

The first scenario was being drunk with one’s friends out at a club. Sam said “when you’re drunk you don’t care” and in a drunken context “it’s not necessarily considered sexual to… put your arm over a guy or to sit closer… it could be misconstrued as that, but because there’s alcohol in there you just basically assume they’re being a little freer a little more relaxed because they’re drunk right now.” Ethan said, “Honestly when I’m really intoxicated, I find everybody gets a lot more huggy and arms around shoulders and stuff like that.” Michael generalized, saying “People just tend to be more physical, showing affection, when they’re drunk’ and returned to the metaphor of “the line,” which becomes “more grey” with alcohol. Anton described his drunken behavior as “more touchy” and “less in control.”

Eduard, Stefan, and Donovan asserted that alcohol did not affect their likelihood to hug or touch their friends much or at all. Eduard differentiated the topic of conversation based on the amount of alcohol imbibed, but said his friend group stood in a circle regardless: “When we have a few beers… always in this group in a circle just talking about bullshit…when we have…like twenty beers, then we’re starting to talk philosophy, politics, and why are we here.” Stefan said he and his friends “might touch each other’s shoulders,” but not much else. Donovan explained it more definitively, saying, “I think I would pass out before I was so inebriated that I was completely uninhibited… I would never be like, ‘yeah this [being more physical than is usually acceptable] is ok now.’”

The second scenario involved receiving great news, such as learning a friend was getting married or watching one’s favorite sports team win a game. Anton reiterated the importance of the inter-personal dynamic in hugging ideologies, saying how he would react “depends [on] what group of people I’m with.” Sam said he’d “hug somebody…for a few brief moments and then… keep on celebrating.” Eduard explained that at the World Cup a few years ago he and his friends “just jumped and hugged each other like to death like two minutes” every time their team scored a goal, adding that they were moments of “euphoria.” Michael shared that with his hockey team “celebrations are often large embraces.” However, Jonathan and Donovan reported only high-fiving and cheering in celebratory situations, and Ethan’s response was perhaps the most different from the others, saying delightedly “If I got on candid camera [at a game], I would probably kiss my guy friend. I would do that. That would be really awesome.”

The third scenario was receiving bad news, specifically one of their friends dealing with a death or going through a breakup. Michael said “there’s a different contextual code for [dealing with tragedy]. It’s more acceptable to show physical compassion.” Sam agreed that hugging in tragic situations was generally acceptable, but that he was personally uncomfortable with it. He said, “[It] depends on the friend…I mean even with my close friends, like I would hug them, but it would be like every fiber of my being would be against it.” Anton also shared his discomfort around tragedy, at first saying “I’m very bad at those [tragic] situations… I don’t know what I’d do” and finally deciding he’d “try to comfort him [but] if he’s crying, I’m not going to make a big scene out of it… [but he’d] put [his] arm around his shoulder and tell him everything’s going to be ok.” Jonathan denied feeling any discomfort, but acknowledged that his friend might, saying “I wouldn’t be afraid to hug him or take him by the shoulder, but only if he shows that he wants it.” Donovan also tried to take the other person’s feelings into account, saying he would not change his physical behavior at all unless asked because “it might be seen as patronizing…implying he wasn’t strong or masculine enough to deal with it on his own.” Eduard spoke from experience, sharing that his friend recently lost a girlfriend to an accident and the friend really needed him. Eduard’s response was, “you give him a real big hug… Just being there for them at that time… physically and mentally…taking care of them.”

The last scenario I presented was: When put in a hotel room with two double beds with three other guys, where would you sleep? I was interested in this topic specifically because my guy friends in high school often loudly complained on the second day of a school trip of having slept poorly on the floor, despite there being enough bed space to fit everyone. This example fits well into Pascoe’s “fag discourse” in which high school boys throw the spectre of the fag (the fag being a symbol for incompetence and non-masculinity) at each other in an attempt to reify their own heterosexuality (Pascoe 2007). By making sure everyone knew they didn’t sleep next to each other, my high school friends were ensuring no one would label them “the fag.”

I wondered if each of my respondents would report similar experiences. I was pleasantly surprised how nonchalantly my subjects responded. Stefan said, “if [his guy friends] want to sleep over…they can sleep next to me, or if they want to sleep on the ground…that’s fine…as long as they don’t climb over to my side and really snuggle with me.” Stefan was incredulous when I explained high school friends’ aversion to the practice, though he finally conceded, “I understand it when boys are like sixteen and they…are orienting themselves sexually.” Anton originally expressed misgivings about sleeping in the same bed with his guy friends, saying they’d “roll dice to see who sleeps where” but then decided “I wouldn’t mind if it’s a really good friend.” He also made an age and maturity distinction, claiming, “maybe [as a teen] I would have slept on the floor, but now it’s not worth the pain in your back.” Ethan gave a comprehensive response:

I don’t have a problem with sleeping in large groups of people, even with guys. I’ll used guys as pillows and…totally like cuddle up, but I was in London a few years ago…I had this kid who I literally couldn’t stand… and I made him put pillows down the middle of the bed and told him I would beat him up if he crossed it, ‘cause I didn’t like him, but that was very specifically responding to that. If I’m comfortable with a guy friend, then I’ll fucking pass out wherever. I’ve never cuddled up for warmth with a dude. No, yeah once. But… cuddling with guys doesn’t really happen with me…unless it’s in a group…a communal, everybody’s kinda… squished together. (Ethan)

Eduard also said he and his childhood friends “don’t cuddle, but sleep next to each other” and that it was something that people “won’t make jokes about.” Jonathan said he “wouldn’t mind” sleeping in the same bed as a guy friend, but again brought up that some people might, explaining “then we would maybe switch; someone on the ground, someone on the bed,” though he said “that would be stupid.” It seemed that very few of my respondents found any problem sleeping next to their guy friends, drawing “the line” for romantic implication at cuddling instead. And, according to Eric Anderson (Inclusive Masculinity; 2011), homosocial male cuddling is becoming more and more accepted as well: “Last week, I was talking to my second-year students about two straight men cuddling; they laughed, ‘what’s the big deal about that’…I polled them, and found that 14/15 said they had spooned another man, in bed, sleeping all night long. Gone are the days in which men would rather sleep on the floor or head to toe; not only do they share beds and cuddle, but they are not homosexualised for this” (Tobin).

Interestingly, when I asked one of my friends from whose behavior I had drawn this scenario, he said “There really was no reason, in retrospect… at this point, even with people I don’t know [well], I think it would be fine” (Donovan). Donovan here acknowledged that he understands the situation of sleeping next to a friend very differently now that he’s older and perhaps removed from Pascoe’s “fag discourse” (Pascoe 2007).

Again, the diversity of responses for scenarios highlight that guys hold a multitude of beliefs around when hugging and physical interaction is acceptable, encouraged, or uncomfortable that, despite common idioms of practice, cannot be ascribed entirely to cultural attitudes. It is important to note here, however, that age might have more to do with my subjects’ hugging ideologies than their countries of origin. Perhaps the high level of agency my subjects reported results from their unique position as well educated youth at a very fluid time in their lives; they are all learning who they are and who they want to be. Their hugging ideologies and practices –the ways they choose to interact and communicate with those around them –play a big part in shaping their identities. Unlike the rigid social structures of high school often rife with “fag discourses,” the relative freedom of college and study abroad affords them more agency.

Joking as “oppositional” behavior

When I asked about how joking affected where “the line” was drawn, I also got a variety of answers. Pascoe, in her case study of the fag discourse in an American high school titled Dude, You’re a Fag, describes ironic gay imitation as one way of rejecting a fag identity. Similarly, my respondents described jokes of physical contact as needing to be “so blatantly homoerotic that it can’t be homo[sexual]” (Sam). Donovan described his coworker as performing blatantly homoerotic joking, often involving standing very close to another guy in an attempt to make him uncomfortable:

He would use the stigma around homoeroticism as a source of humor…it was funny to everyone when it wasn’t you… but when it was you it was super uncomfortable, and actually it was kinda uncomfortable for everyone all the time because it was kind of in bad taste and not that funny, and homoerotic and uncomfortable. (Donovan)

Donovan was not alone in expressing his discomfort. In fact, none of my respondents claimed to enjoy or tell gay jokes (though my presence as a woman and a gender studies major might have affected their responses). Some of the interviewees claimed that they did not participate in the sharing of gay jokes at all and did not think they were funny, differentiating themselves from those who did. Jonathan said, “I guess being gay is sort of a joke, but not really,” adding “I don’t make fun of my friends.” Eduard based gay jokes in a societal consciousness, arguing that they are “like this funny joke that’s not really funny, but it’s conditioned in society that it’s a joke.” However he situated hugging outside of “the gay joke thing” (Eduard), perhaps implying a regional idiom of practice in which physical affection is not conceptualized as homoerotic in the context of male friendship.

Ethan provided an interesting explanation for the prevalence of gay joking:

There’s a lot of this kind of ironic or sarcastic physical interaction that happens [among] guys that I’ve noticed… like grabbing a guy’s ass in a certain way is just… a funny thing to do, whereas in another way it can be considered threatening… There has to be an emotional disconnect that’s understood there. I find that people who maybe have a difficult time communicating genuinely have to communicate like oppositionally to what would be uncomfortable… [Behaving ironically is a way of] doing something you don’t mean as a surrogate… for being unable to express [yourself] genuinely. (Ethan, emphasis mine)

Most of the subjects, from both cultures, who were generally uncomfortable hugging their guy friends seemed to be made most uncomfortable by the thought that those hugs could either represent genuine romantic caring or appear to do so. In that case, behaving “oppositionally” would be one way of expressing genuineness without risking discomfort. For example, a guy could use a gay joke against a gay male friend as a way of poking fun at the practice (therefore showing affection) without risking being perceived as homosexual himself. Oppositionality could also be used playfully or radically. For instance, the deliberate reclamation of derogatory terms such as “gay,” “faggot,” and “queer” (among others) could also be seen as oppositional behavior.

Demonstrating closeness: “You just know it”

Repeatedly, I asked my interviewees how closeness was conveyed in their friendships, both in they ways they personally demonstrated it and the ways their friends reciprocated it. Often, the response was “you just know it” (Anton), though further probing revealed that some factors included “trust level, time, familiarity [and] getting to the point where the relationship isn’t something you’re constantly thinking about” (Michael). Many of my subjects said they would talk to their close friends about anything and everything; others said having shared history and going through hard times together was a measure of closeness; Anton said he knew they were close when insults were accepted with “no harm done” (Anton); Ethan said, “the biggest thing I do [to show he cares] is… spend time with them.” Eduard agreed that spending time was important, and specified that being one-on-one or in a small gathering was more meaningful than being in a large group.

Few claimed to verbalize their caring. Anton said, “we know…[and therefore] we don’t have to say it.” Donovan alluded to a process of deduction, musing “it’s generally not a super-conscious process, it’s more like a ‘we’re hanging out’ and ‘you’re really cool’ and ‘they seem to like me ok’ so ‘I guess we’re friends.’” Jonathan was the only one who disclosed he sometimes said he cared, but maintained that “if you’re going to do something together, it should be clear” regardless of a verbal declaration. None of my respondents brought up hugging or other physical contact as a way to demonstrate closeness.

Looking at culturally hegemonic masculinities

Though I was quickly disavowed of my original assumption that there would be a clear difference in hugging ideologies between the US and the Netherlands, I still wanted to explore how my respondents’ understandings of their cultures’ stereotypical or ideal masculinities affected their personal hugging ideologies.

Eduard described stereotypical Dutch masculinity in terms of style, saying “at a party you have this stereotypical guys [sic] with just the tank top…and the techno dance.” Yet, distancing himself from that stereotype, he claimed that he was “the typical Dutch guy” and that “there’s a lot of guys like me…who like to hug and who don’t like to touch each other, but it’s just part of the friendship.” Anton described a similar stereotype of Dutch masculinity, saying it’s “the person who…doesn’t read books [and] goes to the gym a lot,” values “his girls, his car,” and “get[s] drunk just for sport.” He claimed, however, that this was more of universal stereotype of masculinity than a Dutch one. Anton also distanced himself from his description of stereotypical masculinity, saying “it’s in me, but it’s not…who I am.” Jonathan identified other characteristics as being the epitome of Dutch masculinity, namely “a lot of money…and independence,” but later scaled his description back to “really just if women like you.” He identified with some aspects of the masculinity he described, saying “independence is still really important to me, but I don’t…really try to be very masculine, or at least not the stereotype…I just try to be myself.”

Stereotypical American masculinity shared one characteristic with the Dutch version; both valued heterosexuality. However, while my Dutch subjects also identified personality traits and class position as being integral in their conception of ideal masculinity, my American subjects focused primarily on what Donovan described as “the flaunting of heterosexuality,” which I can relate again to Pascoe and compulsive heterosexuality – “heterosexually based gender practices [that] serve to defend boys against emasculating insults like those in the fag discourse” (Pascoe 2007: 86). Pascoe goes on to claim that compulsive heterosexuality is less about sex than it is about “affirming subjecthood and personhood” (86).

Some of my American subjects identified with this veneration of heterosexuality, and therefore the production of their masculine self, more than others. For instance, Donovan rejects the fag, saying, “for the most part, I ascribe to [hegemonic masculinity]… I don’t feel overly pressured into displaying masculinity… or changing what I do to ascribe to it, but…there’s a [heterosexual] niche that I fit into…and I don’t want to be associated with homosexuality…I don’t want that to be part of my image.”

In contrast, Ethan said he did not “give a shit about” masculine norms. He explained that he understood the dynamics of ascribing to and not ascribing to masculine norms this way:

This sounds really like a 1990s shitty undergrad thesis about masculinity, but…a basic security in masculinity, in manhood, seems to be concomitant with a little bit more freedom and relaxation of those sorts of things [physical interaction]. A lot of guys who seem to act more aggressively male I think might be the ones who are a little less comfortable with being a man, with being heteronormative. (Ethan)

Perhaps the general regional idioms of practice I observed (and those I expected to observe) result from Ethan’s observation. Dutch guys grow up in a society that has a reputation for tolerance and acceptance of many modes of being (whether or not that reputation is reflective of reality is a topic for another paper). This environment, where men are maybe more comfortable in their sexuality, would expose them to representations of men behaving in different ways and being understood as masculine/heterosexual nonetheless. Little is at risk for those who do not perform heterosexuality. Representations of men in the United States, however, reflect its history of beating out difference, of rejecting the fag (Pascoe 2007). Those men who do not conform risk losing a lot of cultural capital and privilege. Following this dichotomy would lead me back to my original assumption that Dutch guys have more freedom in their physical interactions than American guys. Because this hypothesis wasn’t supported by my research (Both American and Dutch subjects expressed in their own words desires to reject the fag (Pascoe 2007); both American and Dutch subjects displayed “inclusive masculinities” (Anderson 2009)), I conclude that the regional dichotomy model can only be used to understand broad stereotypes of the cultures that don’t necessarily determine how people in those cultures will behave. Again, an individual male youth’s hugging ideologies are highly dependent on said individual and his family and friends, more so than on the cultural masculine stereotype for his country of origin.

Regional idioms of practice: stereotypes compared

I was also interested in to what extent my respondents conceptualized male hugging ideologies and friendship behavior in their own culture as being different from or similar to that in the other culture. This question revealed more about the stereotypes each culture has of the other than how the people in each culture actually behave.

Adriaan described Dutch guys as a whole as “sweet and understanding,” and said they “appreciate it when someone is genuine in their emotion…direct and honest.” Eduard said that in comparison to American guys, the Dutch are “maybe a bit female-ish.” Adriaan described the difference in terms of reserve: “American guys are…more reserved and…keep to their confined space…unless there is booze involved [whereas Dutch guys] won’t really get much stranger while we’re drunk because we don’t keep so much reserved in the first place.”

Sam agreed with Adriaan’s conclusion, saying the Dutch “seem to be much more open about physical contact.” Michael described the difference as “maybe [Dutch guys] are slightly more physical off the bat, but not at a shocking level.” Ethan, who said Adriaan was the only Dutch guy he’s really hung out with said he hadn’t really noticed a difference. However, out of my interview pool, Adriaan and Ethan had the most similar hugging ideologies and were therefore unlikely to have noticed differences, cultural or otherwise.

The stereotypes above do not necessarily reflect how my subjects described their own behaviors. Each used his own personal relationships and experiences to determine his hugging ideologies which were not derivative of, but probably influenced by, these stereotypes. Again, age plays a role here; college is generally understood to be a place where people can experiment on different behaviors, regardless of whatever cultural stereotypes exist. Students can disregard the stereotypes, or, as Ethan claims in the section on joking, they can use them oppositionally, whether playfully or out of discomfort with genuineness.

Conclusion

Overall, I found that each of my interviewees had their own hugging ideology and the agency to enact it. While some subjects shared “idioms of practice,” they would also often disagree on what type of relationship that behavior indicated. For example, Adriaan hugged people he just met, whereas in a similar situation, Sam would only hug his closest friends. These agreements and disagreements could not be tracked along cultural lines, however. Both Sam, the respondent who was least comfortable hugging other guys, and Ethan, the respondent who was most comfortable hugging other guys, were American. (Levels of comfortableness deduced qualitatively). Instead of trying to map “the line” along cultural differences, perhaps it would be more revealing to map it along the edges of youth, wherever they may be. By highlighting shared youth, perhaps scholars could understand more fully expressions of agency in a world so intent on imposing systems of behavior.

Instead of definite conclusions, engaging in this research has left me with more questions. For instance, to what extent and in what ways does one’s upbringing affect one’s hugging ideology? If not originating in home life, where and how do hugging ideologies develop? When idioms of practice emerge not only within distinct friend groups, but also between disparate individuals, how are those beliefs distributed? To what extent are hugging ideologies representative of personal agency, as my findings suggest, or is there a larger system in control? Further research into these questions, as well as additional comprehensive studies on homosexual male youth, male youth of color, male youth with various abilities, the differences of hugging ideologies between female and male youth, and comparisons of youth and non-youth beliefs and behaviors in these areas would benefit the field of youth cultures.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Zoë Crabtree is a student at Mount Holyoke College, interested in gender studies, queer theory, performance studies, and questioning traditional sources of knowledge production. Connect with Zoë on LinkedIn.

References

Anderson, E. (2009). Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R. W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society 19.6: 829-59.

Gershon, I. (2010). The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California.

Tobin, L. (2011). The Kissing Game: Why are more and more straight men locking lips in public – and does it mean the end of homophobia? The Guardian (London). 4 January 2011: 9.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 found on Google Images with search term: full hug. November 29, 2013.

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