Several months ago, I went for a walk with a Bulgarian friend. While we were walking, I noticed passersby often stared at me. I asked her why people were staring. I couldn’t understand what they were seeing that made me appear so different; my physical features weren’t that different than theirs, and I was wearing clothes similar to theirs. I wondered how they all knew I wasn’t Bulgarian. She laughed and told me it was the way I carried myself. According to her, my body language and facial expressions reflected confidence, happiness, optimism, and hope, immediately giving me away as a foreigner and making me a curiosity.
In the time that’s passed since then, I’ve come to better appreciate her observations and assessment. A disturbing number of Bulgarians, perhaps the majority, perpetually look depressed, bitter, and even angry. This is especially true in Sofia. If you saw a close friend expressing the same body language, you’d probably ask your friend if everything was alright. Or you’d ask if your friend needed a hug. After noticing the same thing, a fellow Peace Corps’ volunteer decided that’s exactly what we should do – go to Sofia and offer безплатни прегръдки (free hugs). I’m not the type of person who particularly enjoys hugging strangers, and I would typically cross the street as quickly as possible to avoid anyone giving away free hugs. Nevertheless, I was very curious to see how Bulgarians would react to such a concept, so I agreed to participate.
So yesterday, five of us braved 21 degree temperatures (-6 °C) and walked around Sofia for more than two hours giving away free hugs. Besides being extremely fun, the psychology underlying our experiment was fascinating. Here are some of the things I learned:
• It was much more difficult getting hugs from people when walking alone than when walking with another hugger. It was easiest getting hugs when all five of us were together – along with three Brits and a Bulgarian who joined the cause. Apparently, being crazy in a group makes one seem far less dangerous than being a crazy individual or pair.
• Most Bulgarian men will not hug another man, at least not a stranger. Most Bulgarian men will hug any woman.
• I got far more hugs when I held my “безплатни прегръдки” sign over my head than when I held it in front of my chest. The more time people had to absorb the information, the more likely they were to want a hug.
• I was far more successful when commanding people to get a hug by giving an open-armed, “Хайде,” than I was when asking people if they wanted a hug by saying, “Искаш ли?”
• Most of my hugs came from attractive women in their 20s who either were alone or were with another woman of the same age. I also received a large number of hugs from women over the age of 50. I had a smaller number of hugs from women between the ages of 30 and 50 and a few hugs from men. I didn’t get any hugs from kids.
To say our experiment was successful would be a gross understatement. All the hugging took the chill out of an otherwise frigid day and left us all in great spirits. And the Bulgarians were far more receptive than we could have hoped. Sure, there was still a large number of people who walked past us with looks of bitterness and anger plastered on their faces. And plenty of people thought us to be foolish, crazy, or both. But the majority of people we encountered either laughed at us or smiled with us, and, in just two hours in the bitter cold, I saw more smiling Bulgarians than I had previously seen in seven months. Some of the people we hugged came back for seconds, and some didn’t want to let go. One of the most memorable hugs was one of the last ones. After we hugged, an attractive girl in her early 20s asked, “Why only hugs? You need to give free kisses.” Definitely something to consider for next time.