9 Things I Relearned From Hugging 70 strangers in airports (in one day)

On Thursday evening, while I was packing for my flight home for christmas, my girlfriend announced “I took advantage of your trust and posted something to your facebook.” Based on what usually shows up in that kind of circumstance I was like “ack, better go delete it.” Instead, when I finally saw it, I was like “Damn. Why didn’t I think of this?” Fortunately, I could pretend I had thought of it.

A screenshot of my facebook status, reading "For every like I get on this status, I will give that many random strangers a hug tomorrow at the airport." The first comment is also me, and says, "Or offer to give, if they don't want a hug."

It already had a dozen likes.

By the time she dropped me off at the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto, it had over a hundred. In fact, it had exactly 101. The Bishop Airport was the perfect place to do this, as it has a great lounge that feels really friendly, along with free food I could make small-talk about.

1. CoZE is awesome

These are things I relearned. I basically already knew them, but the message got drilled in a lot deeper by the actual act of offering a hundred hugs.

CoZE, short for Comfort Zone Expansion, is the main lens that I used to understand what I was doing. I was expanding my comfort zone by offering a lot of hugs. Now, to some people, this would have been so far out of their comfort zones that it would have seemed way too daunting. For me, I knew it would be a challenge, but I figured I could do it if I really hustled.

So CoZE is great. I already knew that. One reason it’s great is because you deepen your experiential understanding of things. I’m sharing what I learned not because I think it’s things that you totally don’t know, but to try to tell the story of how this CoZE challenge taught me stuff. And because the stories herein are pretty great.

This was also a lot of fun. It’s fun to challenge yourself. Or can be, anyway.

It’s worth noting that while I definitely recommend that people try CoZE exercises, it’s important to make the world a better place in the process. When you’re offering or requesting something, do the best you can to make it easy for them to say no if they don’t want it, especially, especially something related to physical contact. Maybe even start just by holding up a free hugs sign as people walk by.

Now, without further ado, the other 8 things I relearned.

2. Phrasing and framing matter

With the first few people I asked, I tried showing them the facebook post on my phone, then saying “would you like a hug?” and they refused, kind of awkwardly. Then I tried to give a more meaningful reason:

“I’m going home for the holidays, and to get warmed up for the season I’m giving hugs to strangers on the way. Would you like one?”

This worked a fair bit better, but I was able to improve it even more to the following:

“I’m travelling home for Christmas, and I have this thing I like to do where I hug as many strangers as I can on the way… Do you want a hug?”

I would often preface that with “so this is kinda random, but…”

I think the Christmas thing really helped. I might be able to come up with an almost-as-good framing some other time of year, but it would be hard. Holiday season is easy mode for friendly stranger CoZE.

I can’t say for sure, but I think that smiling warmly and holding out my arms was also pretty key.

3. It’s not who you’d think

A bunch of people asked me, at various times yesterday, if I noticed whether any demographics seemed more or less likely to go for the hug. I can confirm that nope, it was everyone. I think I had a slightly higher acceptance rate among women with grey or white hair (80-90% compared to the overall 70%) but there was no other obvious group that was for or against.

In particular, I recall striking up a conversation with a group of 4 dudes who were eating the cookies in the kitchenette area. They were heading to Montréal to party. As they were about to walk, I said “wait!” and proposed hugs. They were like “totally, man!” Maybe 10 minutes later, I walked by them, and they were with like 5 other friends, and the guys I’d originally met were like:

“Yo, Jake, you need to hug this guy!”

They got all but one of their friends to hug me. Which brings us to…

4. People like to share experiences with their friends

I hugged one woman who I thought was alone, and just moments later, she called out to her friend who was behind me, “Tanya, he’s giving Christmas hugs!” So Tanya got one. And then their other friend, who was initially reluctant, also got one.

I had a few people say, “if I’m doing it, you can do it,” or something along those lines. One person took a picture of me. Not of the hug, just “this was the guy who hugged me.” I posed for it.

At one point, I walked past a woman I’d just hugged, as she sat back down with a ~7-year-old boy (presumably her son), and I overheard her say “…Christmas hugs…”, and I said to him, “do you want one?” and he said sure!

I offered some hugs to a couple people in an area, some sitting, some standing. Another guy on the far side of that cluster of people (not friends as far as I could tell) whom I hadn’t explicitly addressed, stood up and said “I’m getting in on those hugs!”

5. The current level of hugs is sub-optimal

Some people were really struck by delight at the prospect of a Christmas hug from a stranger in an airport, including quotes like, “Wow, that really brightened my day!”

The most touching moment of my hugs adventure happened in the Halifax Airport, after I landed. I was on my way from the plane to the baggage claim, offering hugs to people who looked huggable as I went. A woman with short white hair looked me in the eye and said:

“I’m a cancer survivor, so I always say yes to hugs…”

Ultimately I feel pretty confident that this effort had a net positive effect on the people I interacted with.

6. Different people have different needs

“Give ME a hug?! I’m gonna give YOU a hug!”

“I’m not gonna hug you. But you can hug me.”

(she was fine with being embraced, just didn’t want to put her arms around me herself)

“I can’t, I have a sore shoulder.”
“How about if I just put my arm around you?”
“Sure!”

“Here, just squeeze my hand.” *smile* “That’s a hug.”

“What, do I have to get up?”

(he was down for a hug but refused to get up for a hug.)

7. Nobody was mad

The strongest negative reaction I got was when I offered hugs to a couple of women waiting to depart in Halifax, and they looked at me incredulously and said, “You’ve got the wrong crowd, man…”

I chatted up one of the pilots in the cockpit while the plane was refueling in Ottawa, and he said “so you’re going home for Christmas?” which I used to segue into my offer. He said no, which was probably for the best since he was all strapped in. But yeah, this challenge definitely made me a lot more social.

There were a few encounters that were a little bit awkward, but other than that almost all of over one hundred hug offers was totally friendly and pleasant.

…including when I tried my line on people I’d already hugged. (I’d been super freaked out about that one happening, and it was totally fine.)

8. Social support helps

Throughout the whole thing, I was posting my hug count (as a fraction of hugs/offers) to the facebook thread that started it all. It was really motivating to know that my friends around the world could see my progress live. And I mean, I needed to keep track somewhere. But it really helped to have the accountability.

I made sure to make the official count (what needed to get to 101) be something under my control—hug offers—rather than something someone else would need to consent to. That way I wasn’t trying to manipulate them into hugging me so I could get points. I got all of the important points just from trying.

But I wanted to get actual hugs too. In the end, I had 71 hugs out of 101 offers. Not bad! That ~70% was pretty consistent throughout the day, including exactly 7/10 and 35/50, as well as 50/70, which was how many I had before the plane took off.

I wish I’d made a prediction for how many I’d get, but I didn’t so I’m not going to pretend that “that’s how many I thought I’d get” or whatever. Retrodictions don’t count. I will say that at one point it was around 50% and I was thinking “I really hope I can get at least half,” which indicates I definitely wasn’t confident that I would.

9. People like social experiments, mostly

Malcolm hugging a stranger.

One of the coolest parts was that one guy started watching me and then when I would come back to the table he was at, he would ask me how it was going, what my success rate was like, and so on. At one point he said,

“I got some pictures of those hugs!”
“What?”
“Lemme show you…”

He emailed me one of them, which is… here!

“What’s the catch?” asked someone. I also got some looks and remarks to the effect of “and then what?” or “so now what?” which I usually would just respond to with a happy shrug, “That’s it! Just a hug.”

I think my favourite remark, the whole day, was made by this guy at the baggage claim in Halifax. He would have been like person 93 or so. I said

“So I’m going home for christmas, and I’m trying to hug as many—”

and he just interrupted me and said

“Shuttup with your social experiment and get over here!”

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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