Even though I think I’ll want to be married one of these days, living alone has its perks. I can keep the TV or stereo on as late as I want, engage in late-night cleaning frenzies whenever I want, cook up a batch of popcorn and call it dinner, and prance around the house in a T-shirt and Velcro rollers while alarming no one but Simon Cat. Also, the thermostat is my domain — mine and mine alone.
Domestic freedom is great, except for one thing: no hugs. I’m lucky in that my family members live near enough that I get to see at least one of them every week. My parents and brothers may think I’m crazy for demanding so many hugs every time I see them, but I cling to them anyway. Those hugs sustain me through a week of cool reserve at work.
Why do we keep our co-workers at arm’s length? After years of spending 40 hours each week with them, they become our friends. We share our days and nights with them, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder through layoffs, grueling deadlines and all the other things that make work stressful. Engagements, weddings, pregnancies, sorrows — we’re there for all of these. When a person’s birthday rolls around, she gets a cake. When she leaves the company, she gets another cake. My co-workers rarely fail to attend the many baby and wedding showers that happen each year (an area I admit to falling short in much of the time). There’s ample proof that we care about each other, and yet, no hugs in the office. Why is this?
I understand that companies must maintain a sense of professionalism. We try to dress appropriately, and we usually refrain from loud outbursts in the office. Work comes first, and I understand that this must be the case. But still I wonder: Would a hug every now and then really undermine our mission and productivity?
Twice this year I’ve witnessed colleagues crying openly in the newsroom, and I found myself torn on how to respond. In the first instance, we’d just learned of a co-worker’s death. We received the news as a group, quietly (no one said a word), and we mourned alone at our desks. I looked across the room and saw a woman I like and respect very much struggling to keep her composure. My instincts pulled me from my chair and over to her desk, but just as I was about to lean down and wrap my arms around her, I stopped. The room was too silent, too aware. Instead I placed my hand on her arm, willing my fingers to give the comfort she seemed to need so badly. Yes, people grieve in different ways, and yes, the work must be done. But is it really wrong to suspend professionalism in cases like this? I don’t think it is.
Corporate culture is at odds with my soul. When I step through the doors, I feel my core temperature drop, my skin toughen, and it’s all from conditioning. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK with this. Two of my dearest friends from college work at my paper, but their offices are removed from our part of the newsroom. When they visit me in our often silent, morgue-like part of the building, we act as we always have. We squeeze each other’s arms, we comment on each other’s hair with an accompanying pat on the head, and yes, sometimes we hug. For a moment, I feel warmer, and then I remember where I am and worry that I’ve broken an unspoken rule.
It’s the same way with the security guards on the first floor. Over the years I’ve become extremely fond of some of them. We talk about families, the weather, cars, beer. And we hug one another when we feel like it. With them, I feel entirely like me, and I wonder why it can’t be like that with everyone else.
I suppose it’s possible my perceptions of the workplace are off. I could be overstating the level of detachment, or I could be imagining it altogether. And I do realize many people aren’t as touchy-feely as I am. Be that as it may, I firmly believe this: Offices could stand to be a bit warmer. Even if you don’t see these people much outside work, they’re a big part of your life, and they could probably use the human touch. We have enough machines already.