Queen Elizabeth was moved to give Michelle Obama a little side hug back in 2009. Picture: Reuters

Washington - It seemed like a perfectly timed message for girls as the #MeToo movement picked up steam.

"Reminder," read a headline on the Girl Scouts Facebook page late last year. "She Doesn't Owe Anyone a Hug. Not Even at the Holidays."

But the reaction was stunning.

"You have gone overboard," blasted one commenter among the hundreds of fiery responses to the November post. "One, no one MAKES a child give a hug. Two, don't assume physical affection leads to negative behavior."

Countered another, "It's about teaching a kid that her body is HERS, even from a young age."

Who would have thought that hugging could trigger so much ire? After all, America today is a nation of huggers, clutching each other every chance we get. We hug to say hello, hug to say goodbye. Presidents hug. Total strangers hug. It's harmless, right? More than that - it's a sign that we're open. That we're caring.

But now we have #MeToo. And it turns out that not everyone needs a hug.

Here's what makes the hugging question so tricky: From the outside, all hugs look benign. Only the huggee knows whether what's coming is a welcome embrace or slightly icky.

Take the incident last summer, when Kesha bounded up to Jerry Seinfeld on a red carpet and pleaded for a hug as the cameras rolled.

"No thanks," Seinfeld replied, his voice creeping higher with alarm.

"A little one," the gregarious singer insisted, going in for it.

"Yeah, no thanks," Seinfeld repeated. By then he'd stepped back a full foot from the pop star/aggressor. Kesha, finally getting it, let out a wounded whine and slunk off.

So who was in the wrong here? Everyone and no one, it seems.

"I find it kind of hysterical that we go for the hug, even though we are really unsure of the hug," says Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, which is devoted to solving the nation's etiquette quandaries.

"To be any good, an embrace must be mutual," Garrison Keillor once wrote. Yes, it's surreal to cite Keillor now, on the subject of touching. But exploring the weirdness is why we're all here, no?

For what it's worth, Post believes that we hug too much. "The reason I can say that is because we have these reactions," she says. "It gets awkward, or someone has to say something ahead of the hug to stop the hug from happening. If we were really okay with hugging, we'd just hug."

Post has answered many questions about hugs in her 10 years at the institute. In one episode of her Awesome Etiquette podcast last year, a listener wrote in to ask whether it was bad form to refuse them. (Particularly from the older male colleagues who always seem to want them. )

On the other side are those like the Texas sheriff who announced huffily on Facebook last year that he was quitting hugs because the workplace "can become hostile if an employee 'feels' threatened by your hugs."

"SO IT'S OVER," he fumed.

But is it?

Queen Elizabeth was moved to give Michelle Obama a little side hug back in 2009, setting English tongues wagging because it was a clear break from Her Majesty's strict no-touching protocol. And when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enveloped President Donald Trump in a bro hug last year, it might not have made such a stir if the embrace hadn't cut short Trump's usual protracted and strangely vigorous handshake with foreign leaders."

Science affirms the idea that hugs may be good not only for the soul but also for our physical well-being.

"There are data showing that hugging provides a buffer to stress," says Srini Pillay, a Harvard psychiatrist who studies brain science. "People will often recommend hugging as a form of social bonding that calms down the fight-or-flight system." A good, solid hug releases oxytocin, may improve the immune system and lowers blood pressure.

"But when the hug is awkward," Pillay warns, "I can't imagine that what is actually happening is that the person is becoming calmer."

Washington Post