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The question

Do you know of any way to defend oneself from touching and hugs in a medical setting without being rude and "difficult?" Recently I've had two cancer screening procedures, mammogram and colonoscopy. I had reassuring results from both tests, and was neither nervous nor upset about the procedures as such. Yet in one case a female attendant came up behind me, without warning, hugged me and said, "Don't worry, dear!" In the other a nurse came into the cubicle where I was waiting in bed, grabbed my hand and said, "Darling!" Both times, I asked them not to do these things and received pouts and glares. Both of these women were perfect strangers and their behaviour came completely without warning. I didn't yell at them – I just asked them politely to desist. What else could I have done? I imagine these women mean well, but I find their attentions as unwelcome as being groped by a stranger on a crowded bus.

The answer

You don't mind colonoscopies but hugs bug you? I'm the opposite, but hey: takes all kinds.

Mr. Science here: Did you know welcome hugs generate all kinds of health benefits? They release oxytocin, a.k.a. "the bonding drug," which in turn lowers cortisol levels, decreases stress and lowers blood pressure. A prolonged reciprocal hug will also release serotonin, "the happiness drug."

But unwelcome hugs, what we might call "hug mugging," release cortisol, a.k.a. "the stress drug," and thus are actually bad for you.

I blush to tell you I've been guilty of "hug mugging" myself – only once that I know of. It was during my time as a producer on a TV book-chat show. A bunch of us went out for drinks (what Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's brother Doug calls "pops") after work, and when we parted ways I, a happily married man, dropped a big old see-you-tomorrow clincheroo on the attractive new intern, Rachel.

"Wow, thanks for the creepy hug," she said when I released her. I was stung, mortified. My intentions were strictly platonic and avuncular. Or were they? Maybe all those "pops" made me a little sloppy. In any case, from that moment on, hug-wise, I made sure always to wait until the other person offered.

Unwanted touching and hugging may be a more pervasive problem than we think. Ask any pregnant woman how many times people reach out and touch her prow, unsolicited, and you'll get an earful. "Hug mugging" also routinely shows up in workplace sexual harassment claims (usually with other unwanted behaviours).

As to what you should do … of course, it's possible to step back and say, as you have done, politely but firmly: "Sorry, I just don't feel like a hug now." But that's easier said than done, and in the real world, as you've seen, more likely than not to cause offence, to turn your mugger from huggy to huffy.

Presuming you don't want that, there are numerous ways to deflect unsolicited hugs and touches without ruffling feathers. Those of you uncomfortable with moral grey areas and white lies should perhaps stop reading now.

First, stand well back from a suspected hug-mugger when you're talking to them. The more real estate to cross, the more awkward the hug, and maybe he/she will get the hint. But if he/she comes at you with outstretched arms anyway (hug-muggers tending to be impervious to body language cues), you can turn or duck to perform some suddenly "urgent" action, e.g. grab your tea or tie your shoe. Or pre-emptively stick out your hand for a shake (a solid handshake also releases oxytocin, by the way).

But some people are determined. And when confronted with an outstretched hand will use it to pull you in and say "Ah, come on, bring it in, ya big lug."

At which point you can say: "I'm sorry, I have a cold." Or even: "I'm sorry, I have mysophobia," an irrational fear of germs.

After that, well, I'm out of white lies and inoffensive, deflective behaviours.

So if nothing I mention works and the hug mugging continues to really bother you, all you can do is what you've done: "Politely ask them to desist." Of course it'll ruffle their feathers, but you have a right to your personal space.

On the other hand, could you not simply realize they're doing it out of compassion, clench your teeth and endure for the second or two it takes, and realize getting a hug or touch (I'm not talking about from a guy in a trench coat in the park) is maybe not the worst thing in the world?

What am I supposed to do now?

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