Giving hugs, taking hugs, sharing hugs, whether or not they are “free”, a close embrace, an awkward arc… The perception of a hug lies in whoever is asked, and all responses are different. But when it comes to standing out in Red Square and holding a sign reading “Free Hugs,” some people are on their way to becoming experts at hugging.
On any given school day, someone wandering through Red Square might encounter Bryan Johnston, a senior who identifies himself as “the free hugs guy” on Viking Village, Western’s online forum. Clad in a multi-colored beanie on cold days and sporting his waterproof sign that doubly functions as an umbrella, Johnston’s friendly demeanor is evident in his easygoing smile and his willingness to make eye contact.
The first rule of free hugs is making sure that everybody is comfortable, he said. One way of doing this is to read body language.
Someone approaches. They smile, make eye contact. After two seconds of eye contact, Johnston will hold up the sign to them in a nonverbal gesture.
Then: the hug.
Guessing what kind of hug is coming also requires reading body language, Johnston said.
“Quick open,” he demonstrated, spreading his arms wide, “is a big hug.”
Slightly open and lean in means a quick, top-half hug, he said.
Sometimes it’s the run-to and twirl around, a move he’s still working on.
The length of hug is extremely variable, too. Some people will hug Johnston for 10 to 20 seconds.
“That’s a long hug,” he said. “It might be the only one they get that day. They might really need it.”
On a “good day,” Johnston will give 40 to50 hugs within a two-hour period, but on a “bad day,” he averages 10 to15 hugs every two hours. The average usually depends on the weather, he said. He gives the most hugs during cold weather, maybe during a light drizzle but not a heavy rain, he said, but lots in the snow.
During the slow times, Johnston tells himself to tough it out.
“I kind of see myself as a roving vending machine,” Johnston said. “I’m out there for people’s convenience. Buy stuff, don’t buy stuff.”
Born on Valentine’s Day, Johnston is an only child who received lots of hugs growing up. When he moved to Bellingham, he missed the connection of friends and family, so he started giving free hugs. Now he does it to give his day a purpose, he said.
“It’s now about giving something back,” Johnston said. “It’s the best way I can think of to volunteer for the community. Anyone can volunteer at a soup kitchen and that’s great, but not a lot of people feel comfortable standing in a public area holding a sign and giving hugs to strangers.”
Brooks Hassig, a junior, has been giving free hugs and, if you’re more comfortable, free high-fives, for the past three years. He started because he wanted to do something he thought would help the community, he said.
“That’s the most basic and simple thing I could do to uplift people,” Hassig said.
For him, it’s not about getting a hug from other people, he said.
“I feel so full that I feel the need to give back,” he said. “It’s really hard to give when you feel like you need to get. I’m not out there for me.”
Anthony Anderson, who likes to refer to himself as a receiver of hugs, has free hugged on campus a few times. His motivation for hugging was to become more extroverted, he said.
“It’s a really important thing to do at least once because you are tested,” Anderson said. “When I did it I got skipped a lot and I wondered, ‘why am I not getting hugs?’ But when you do give hugs you’re reminded that there are some people out there who are willing to open up.”
Johnston said hugging takes a lot of energy because there’s an emotional connection, one of support, which he feels he needs to give to everybody.
“It takes something out of you,” he said. “Some days if I don’t get a lot of sleep I’ll take the sign off my bag because I don’t want to hug people and not mean it.”
Some people are honestly thankful for hugs, Hassig said.
“I’m not out there to put something into people to make them feel better,” he said. “It’s to help bring it out, to help them remember that it’s always there.”