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Column: Do people in L.A. hug too much? The New York Times thinks so

Hugs
Sure we hug in Los Angeles — like this grandmother, Ola Tanner, 79, who hugged her great-granddaughter, Alani Hayes, 11, on Thanksgiving Day 2017.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not that I enjoy wagging my finger when Los Angeles is stereotyped by outsiders who know nothing about us.

But once again, duty calls.

The culprit here, unsurprisingly, is an East Coast media outlet.

The gist of an article published this week by the New York Times, as far as I can tell, is that we are prone to over-hugging here in La La Land. It is a first-person account in which the author, a New Yorker currently living in California, describes being hugged by a shaman.

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“If the involvement of a shaman hadn’t tipped you off already,” the story continues, “that hug occurred in Los Angeles.”

Actually, what that comment tipped me off to is that the story was written by a New Yorker. Raise your hand if you live in Los Angeles and you’ve ever been hugged by a shaman. I thought not.

At this point, I had a few options. I could stop reading. I could begin writing a letter to the editor of the New York Times pleading for the paper to please stop. Or I could keep reading in the same way I might keep watching a car chase that cannot end well.

I kept reading.

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“But the shaman was not an outlier,” we are told. “In my entirely unscientific research, this is the way that some people in Los Angeles — you know, the cliched touchy-feely types the city has always been associated with — seem to greet each other.”

I would like to address each of the things wrong with that sentence, but I don’t have six pages of space to work with. So let’s just move on.

We are introduced to a 30-year-old Sherman Oaks publicist who says her hugs typically last between seven and 10 seconds, which makes one wonder if she carries a stopwatch. Then we get a 25-year-old recent transplant who says, “I got a hug from a girl waiting in line to use the bathroom last weekend.”

As if we needed more evidence that this was not a scientific survey.

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The author is rolling now, stringing anecdotes, stereotypes and generalizations together in search of a clever observation that never quite materializes.

“Call it the ‘L.A. hug,’ ” we are told, which sets up this:

“It’s easy to see how, in the land of sunshine and MoonJuice, heart chakras and alternative milks — where most people spend most of their lives in their vehicles — there would be a common need for, well, human contact.”

This writer, I should point out, is apparently in California to write about gender and culture, which is difficult to do when you lean so heavily on sunshine and MoonJuice while missing the many wonders of, well, the deep and expansive local culture.

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Another expert source in the hugging story, who lives not in Los Angeles but in New York, offers this explanation of L.A. residents’ alleged need to embrace:

“They’re gluten deprived.”

A twentysomething friend of the author describes three-minute hugs from the dealer who sells her psychedelic mushrooms. And a childhood friend of Jennifer Aniston, who hosts “goddess circles,” describes endless hugs that facilitate conversation.

Against my better instincts, I have not canceled my subscription to the New York Times, because there is some darn good reporting sprinkled in with this kind of ludicrous punditry about California.

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Other Angelenos shared my disgust.

“Sick unsubstantiated claims,” one person said on Twitter. “There’s not a single reference to the number of people who hug versus the number who don’t.”

“I am really curious about this ‘Los Angeles’ that the NYT keeps writing about,” another Tweet said. “I’ve never been there.”

We did actually have one inveterate hugger in L.A. I’m talking about legislator Bob Hertzberg, who represents the San Fernando Valley in Sacramento and was once referred to as “Huggy Bear” for his signature embraces.

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But he retired from hugging some years ago, when the appropriateness of his greetings came into question.

I have hugged on occasion, and been hugged. But no more so than when I lived in New York City and Philadelphia. In the latter, I must admit, there was quite a bit of hugging by people who suspected they were the targets of criminal investigations. The hug was a way to feel for concealed recording devices and avoid prison time rather than to fill a need for human contact.

It’s possible, I thought, that I’m the one who doesn’t get Los Angeles. Maybe there is more hugging than I was aware of. So on Tuesday, I drove from southwest to northeast, looking for huggers.

I didn’t find any. I did, however, find that traffic is pretty bad, which might be the subject of the NYT’s next expose.

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My research was perhaps no more scientific than that of the New York Times writer, but I did talk to 10 people, not one of whom believed there was more hugging in Los Angeles than anywhere else. But then, none of them was drinking MoonJuice, communing with a shaman or buying ’shrooms, so they might not be living in the hugging bubble.

Actually, I did see one hug. A security guard at the Crenshaw Imperial Center strip mall hugged a high school student who was leaving a charter high school.

“More huggin’ means more lovin’ is going on,” said Melia Nash, although the security guard discounted the likelihood that we are particularly hug-prone in L.A.

Jose and Adriana Romo were holding hands on their way to lunch, but they looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if we seemed to have a hugging problem here.

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At 71st and Crenshaw, LAPD Officer David Heilman told me he’s a hugger.

“I hug my wife, my son and my dog,” he said, but when writing tickets for moving violations, he said, he holds off on the embraces.

At Pan Pacific Park, I found Heather Hannasch, who was visiting from Dallas, with her friend Melissa Pearson, who lives in Santa Clarita. Hannasch said she thinks there’s more hugging in Dallas than in L.A., a tip which I offer free of charge to the NYT culture reporter, should she choose to expand the scope of her work.

Pearson, meanwhile, said she thinks of L.A. as a place where it’s hard to connect, let alone do much hugging.

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At the mall in Eagle Rock, Biddhut Barua said he’s from India, which has more of a handshake culture, but he said he also hasn’t found L.A. to be one big hugging party. Jennifer Payne said she’s a local who once lived in Texas, where there was more hugging than here.

And Pete Huang and Chris Zhao, visiting from their home in Santa Barbara, said there’s more hugging in Santa Barbara than in L.A. because it’s a small community and people tend to know one another well enough to hug upon meeting.

I got a late start on this column and tried unsuccessfully to reach out to the New York Times writer for comment.

When I first got to L.A., there were probably more than a few things I didn’t understand about this place. Twenty years later, I appreciate how difficult a metropolis it is to define in simple terms.

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It defies stereotyping and begs you to challenge your own narrow perspective and celebrate its many wonders.

If you agree, send a nice note. But I will not be accepting any hugs, even if you happen to be a shaman.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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