Mr. Biden, I like you. You mean well. You’re a warm guy. The Biden Method of Spreading Cheer through Sleight of Hand seems like it’s worked pretty well for you. But the times, they are a-changin’. You came of age in an America where, (for instance) powerful men were virtually expected to be unfaithful to their wives. Everyone knew, no one talked about it. So touching? Ehh, no big deal! But your famous handsiness is grounded in a belief you need to reexamine: “Everybody will like it, because I’m, well, Joe Biden.” Some renegade part of me wants to say, “I feel you.” A more woke part of me (“Eww, Helen, really?”) wants to shake the daylights out of you.
Also from Pennsylvania, I grew up in a family where affection was viewed with suspicion, like sugary cereal. Unnecessary. Vulgar, perhaps. I sometimes joke that my mother and I greeted each other with a “Gothic arch kiss.” Our feet firmly planted on the floor, keeping as much space as possible between our respective chests, we’d crane forward over the chasm and peck each other softly on the mouth. “Hello,” she’d always say. “It’s nice to see you.” I always tried not to wipe her wet from my lips, but I’m not entirely sure she would have noticed.
So hugging isn’t really in my social repetoir, and what I most hate is mandatory hugging. I’ve delayed walking into extended family gatherings until my husband and kids have disappeared inside because I’m still busy outside, working out a strategy to avoid the hugging mayhem that ensues the moment I set foot over the threshold. This strategy is rarely successful, since I don’t want to offend anyone. Hiding behind a large, potted plant is okay, but eventually someone comes looking for you. One particular aunt has perfected her Scoop Technique — lifting her arm up like a vulture’s wing, she swoops it down, around my side, behind my back, drawing me inexorably in. I feel like Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, responding to his mother Lillian’s awkward attempt to comfort him, “Why are you squeezing me with your body?
At the same time, a few years back I felt very sad when I saw a Post-it note that my mother had stuck on the inside of her front door. “When taking a walk, REMEMBER TO WAVE AT NEIGHBORS.”
There’s gotta be a balance between following rules and following your heart. But here’s the thing, Joe: A hug is an exchange. I’ve heard that when you touch someone, you leave DNA behind on their skin or clothes, like an invisible shadow. In this dance, there is hugg-er and hug-ee, and if you step on your partner’s foot, you shouldn’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” That’s like saying, “It’s too bad your feet are so massive.”
The #MeToo genie is out of the bottle and flying around so fast that no one’s going to stuff it back any time soon. The realities of okay and not-okay behavior in are being negotiated and re-negotiated all the time, and what has to happen is talking to one another — and, for men of your public stature especially, listening in order to understand. Maybe Stephanie Carter didn’t mind your extended hands-on-shoulder moment — but that doesn’t mean the next woman has to like it. I get where Nancy Pelosi’s coming from when she says you should join the “stiff-arm” club. But I grew up in a pretty extreme version of the Stiff-arm club, and it was kind of a drag, being constantly starved for affection and whatnot. And you can stiff-arm someone but still rape them with your eyes — or, at the very least, make them feel damn uncomfortable, depending on the energy that you radiate from those very handy hands.
Perhaps every social encounter you have from now on is going to make you feel like a middle-school boy who prays that he doesn’t trip and drop his tray when he walks past a table of girls in the lunch room. And I know how mean girls can be. But guess what? You can learn from the women who are pissed off at you. Your work is to understand their point of view. Consider yourself the student in these conversations. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to change our culture. But please, no more hair-smelling. That’s just. Eww.