Fist bumps, bro hugs, man slaps. World leaders do it, sports heroes and stars do it. The B Tribe decodes the physical language of the bro-hood.

If the circle of world leaders were a boys’ club, President Obama can now add a new gang sign. In addition to being Commander-in-Chief, he now carries the title of Cuddler-in-Chief. (If the moniker bestowed on him by certain quarters of international press, sticks.)

He’s been pictured doing the bro-hug with David Cameron. He’s been pictured enfolding former White House press secretary Jay Carney in (what was for Carney) an awkward hug but (for Obama) just another normal man-hug. He clearly likes to hug, men and women alike.

Has anyone ever seen Churchill or Bush (senior and junior) making bodily contact with other world leaders that is more intimate than the handshake or shoulder slap? Didn’t think so.

The golden, unspoken rules

Interestingly, a quick Q&A with some men left me with a few intriguing nuggets.

As if by magic, boys – for the most part – grow up knowing intrinsically, almost at a cellular level, that man hugs exist on a silent, unspoken code all its own.

There are no fathers lecturing sons on man hugs like some rite of passage. There are no big brother or authority figures (or even the indulgent best friend) sitting a man down, and saying, “Look, there’s something you gotta know, dude.”

No. No such thing.

Regardless of culture, geography, socio-economic stratum, most men born before the new millennium just know – like they’re tuned in to some unseen vibrational guy energy that women cannot and will never see – the man hug is governed by its own set of unspoken rules.

Thirtysomething investment advisor Reza Mohd Ali, who has spent 12 years growing up in France and many years in Mexico and Vietnam, regales me with the intricacies of, firstly, the unspoken rules of proximity among males, which then determine the rules of when a bro-hug is ok.

“Look, I don’t even do man-hugs with my brother (who is 21) and it’s not from lack of affection,” says the Malay-Eurasian, “and it’s mostly fist bumps, but even with my best friends it’s a lot of high fives,” he laughs. “Chest bumps, you know, sometimes qualify more than hugs,” he jokes.

Reza loves basketball and he golfs when time permits, so I press him on male locker room etiquette vis-à-vis allowable bodily contact.

I ask the innocent question about whether it’s ok to congenially slap a fellow sports-hobbyist on the back or some such innocuous gesture.

He almost spits his drink out.

“No!” he states. “Absolutely not,” he reaffirms, giving me a look that says this is the golden rule and a guy is at risk of being alienated if he attempts some breach of personal space in the sweat-fume-filled changing room.

Interestingly, radio announcer Alvin Sinclair echoes this sentiment. “When I work out at the gym, no-one touches anyone in the changing room,” he grins, “but occasionally I will see Stranger A admiring the biceps of Stranger B who’ll feel up the Mr A’s biceps, but nah: for a lot of guys, that kind of physical contact just does not happen.”

Meaning, if a guy does not want to get a weird bug-eyed stare or a “Dude. What??” followed by a (literally) shrugging-off of any physical advances, man hugs – or any other form of touching – is strictly disallowed. And guys seem to understand this, even though nobody taught them such rules.

It is completely intrinsically, implicitly understood.

The exceptions

The wedding, funeral, high school reunion or even a boys’ night out at a social hotspot seem to be the only exceptions where man-hugs – as a form of both greeting and affection – are allowed, say some.

But even then, there are qualifying aspects.

“Yeah, anything more than a one-second embrace – when you shake hands and one of you pulls the other in, and your shoulders kind of touch and you slap each other on the back – is unusual,” says Reza with a knowing laugh bubbling under his words. “Anything more than two seconds is just weird.”

“But, at a wedding or funeral, yeah, sometimes guys will go in for the full bear hug, and it’s ok. That’s not a bro thing, that’s a sympathy thing, because you would give a hug to an uncle or a relative.”

Whether it’s pervasive in Asian culture is up to the individual. “I think it’s a culture thing,” muses one man, adding his observation that Asian men don’t generally display, nor place much emphasis on, man-hugs. “For my friends, relatives and me,” he explains, “we just don’t feel the need to [do the bro-hug].”

“But in France, Spain or Italy it’s quite common to see guys peck each other on the cheek,” adds Reza, who also acknowledges that in some cultures, such as with Arab or European men, it is normal to see grown men embrace and do cheek-kisses in greeting.

“But,” qualifies Reza, “no bro hugs. Despite the shake-hands-and-peck routine, no bro-hugs.”

Both Reza and Alvin offer interesting views on the Obama-Cameron clinch. “It could signify the special relationship between the US and the UK,” ventures Reza, while Alvin deadpans with a cheeky grin, “It could be a PR stunt.” So why do we not see Bush and Blair hugging it out?

“Maybe because the Bush-Blair relationship dynamics were not entirely the same,” laughs one of the boys by way of an inside joke.

So do any of these strapping young men feel the Obama-Cameron hug could start an avalanche of inter-male PDA (public displays of affection)?

Judging by their snorts, table-slaps, chuckles and shakes of their heads, I’m taking that as a firm, manly no.


In order of familiarity or formality, this is a rough (and unserious) guide to male-to-male greetings, in ascending order:

The handshake

For meeting strangers for the first time, or for meeting the boss and other people who can decide the fate of your career, for the hundredth time.

The raised hand with the nod and smile

For people who are too far away (and it looks unbecoming to shout at them) or for friends you know just will give you a weird stare if you try to force the manly half-hug.

The fist bump

For closer friends, say, someone who you’ve had more than one raucous boys’ night out with and have a secret pact that neither will divulge the sordid details of said night out.

The high (or sideways) five

Usually reserved for when sporting events are viewed or attended together.

The chest bump

When testosterone is at an all-time high and the guy doesn’t worry about how Neanderthal it looks to girls sitting nearby, probably rolling their eyes.

The slap on the butt cheek

As above, but when one guy is nervous about approaching a pretty girl. The butt slap is the male equivalent of encouragement.

All of the above in one fluid movement

When you’re a rapper, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or stuck in the Nineties.