The “Free Hugs” sign | アニメ!アニメ!

The “Free Hugs” sign

If you give American anime fans a few square feet of free space, they'll do one of two things: pull out a stereo and start a dance circle

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"Letters from the New York Otaku"

By David Cabrera

#15 – The “Free Hugs” sign

Now I'm going to get into some of the things that are really unique to the American convention. I was honestly torn as to which one to go with first, but when I thought about it, there's really one weird, long-lived trend that I can't leave out.

If you give American anime fans a few square feet of free space, they'll do one of two things: pull out a stereo and start a dance circle to songs from internet videos, or hold up a “Free Hugs” sign.

(Possibly both.)

It's a simple thing: you take a big enough piece of paper or cardboard, write the words “Free Hugs” on it in marker, and then stand around the convention center holding or wearing the thing for hours on end, hugging anybody who will agree to the offer. Before I went to I-Con at Stony Brook University this past weekend, I wasn't sure that it was worth writing about... but I saw so many “Free Hugs” signs that I felt like I had to do it.

I saw lone sign-bearers moving back and forth across lobbies, I saw roving groups of would-be huggers, I saw young and old. The thing I saw least often was somebody actually stopping in front of one of these people and accepting a hug. And you never see two people with “Free Hugs” signs run into each other and hug!

None of this makes the endeavor of seeking out free hugs any less popular: Otakon had to ban the practice one year when a high-traffic corridor in the convention center was jammed with “Free Hugs” people who planned on staying there all day to reach as many passers-by as possible with their message. Their message, of course, being “please, please pay attention to me.”

It's a very uncommon sight among the other groups of American geeks, and I've seen it once or twice on a New York City street. But at American anime conventions, this is an extremely common practice. Is there something in particular about American anime otaku that makes this popular? Because I am myself a weirdo, I do a lot of curious thinking about this kind of thing.

Is it because it's a method of non-verbal communication, perhaps, a way to meet like-minded strangers without the hard work of a direct approach? Are the sign-holders just overcoming their shyness? Once at a convention, I was approached by a girl who was looking for a boyfriend this way: she simply stood in front of me silently for a minute and let the sign do the talking. This argument was not convincing.

The convention's a comfortable, accepting zone, one where I've made good friends and had my share of pleasant conversations with total strangers. If you're careful, these kinds of gatherings really are good places to meet people! But those “Free Hugs” signs... man, I hope those people find another way. For their own sake.