All my life in India, until I left for the US, this question never, ever, came up. Because, in the culture in which I grew up, relationships were non-contact sports. As kids, we might have clung on to grandmothers or uncles, but as grown ups we maintained our distances. A shake-hand was the most we ever got to in terms of bodily contact to express anything.
A magazine, I am sure it was Ananda Vikatan, once even featured a short story that was built on this idea of no physical touching of any sort. In that story, a father visits with his grown up adult son, and is returning home. The young man accompanies his father to the train station. The father boards the train, sits by the window while the son stands on the platform. During the conversation, which itself was not a freely-flowing one and rather awkward, the son places his arm on the window and it accidentally grazes the father's hand. The son realizes then that it has been years since he even touched his father ....
I don't recall how the story ends, but it effectively captured the non-contact nature of relationships even within the nuclear family.
And then I left for the US, where it is a completely different world when it comes to expressions. As Elvis put it, a whole lot of shakin' goin' on :)
Every hug became an awkward moment for me. How do I approach them--from the left or from the right? And, what if they lean to kiss me on the cheek? Aah, the endless frustrations!
It took me years to get used to hugs from females of all ages.
And then the hug from men. Oh boy, that was yet another learning experience all by itself.
Finally, I reached a stage where it no longer mattered to me if people wanted to hug me, or expected me to hug them. Life became stress-free. Contact or no contact did not bother me.
But that was with life in America.
Confusion started all over again every time I visited India.
Especially as an academic who understands the need for cultural sensitivity, every trip to India becomes all the more a struggle to control myself from the parting goodbye hugs. Particularly with women--friends and cousins alike.
During this extended trip here, during the first few days, I suppose I was continuing way more with my acquired American habit. Slowly, as I consciously settled into the Indian way of doing things, the more I re-learnt the non-contact hellos and goodbyes.
But, sometimes, I find that only a hug really says that I will miss them after we part. So, I have now worked out a compromise: with my arm over the other person's shoulder, my shoulder squeezes their shoulder that abuts, if you get the picture. A win-win, it is, at least the way I look at it!
Perhaps I am over-thinking life. But, stupid is as stupid does :)