In theory, it is a good idea to refrain from initiating physical contact when you are at work if that contact is not related to job function. Job related contact includes (but is not limited to) things like spotting a co-worker on a ladder, assisting others as they enter a bus, any contact related to medical service provision, and a wide range of actions related to simulations and role-play activities in classrooms and during training programs. In practice, as we all know, physical expressions of friendship and affection among co-workers happen all the time at work. How to know what is okay and what is not? One important thing to remember is that we should always seek explicit consent before we touch others’ bodies.
When we assume that because we have a friendly relationship with a co-worker we can touch that person, we risk setting precedent for others whose similar gestures may not be welcome. We may also be assuming that because someone has never said they do not want to be touched they are comfortable with physical contact. However, for many different reasons, we are not always able or willing to let others know that they have crossed a boundary. Again, it is important that we seek explicit consent from others before we touch them – even a congratulatory pat on the back can be unwelcome or create discomfort for some of us.
People’s personal space boundaries vary a great deal. Even when we do not make contact, if we get very close to someone, especially in the context of differences of opinion, that person may feel intimidated. The relationship between intention and impact can be very helpful to consider in such circumstances. Our intention may be to signal connection, interest, or enthusiasm. The other person may feel uncomfortable, invaded, or trapped.
It is certainly also true that some cultures and some individuals value physical closeness and touching. The cheek kissing traditions of some Europeans, the camaraderie expressed by hugging and other contact among sport team members, hugging as a form of greeting, and the familiarity and affection shared by platonic hand-holding are all examples of more relaxed personal boundaries around physical space and contact. Some international folks on campus have told us that the American tendency to keep one's distance has left them feeling lonely and confused about how to connect with others appropriately. Given the fact that there is such a wide range of expectations and comfort zones, it is crucial that we communicate effectively about our own needs and ask about those of others.
Some of the most common examples of inappropriate or unwelcome touching that our office hears about on campus are: Black or bi-racial people’s hair being touched; international people’s clothing being felt or handled without their consent; people with physical disabilities being assisted without their requesting help; and pregnant women’s bellies being touched. Sometimes it’s the failure to ask for an “okay” to touch us that feels inappropriate. Other times, we are uncomfortable even being asked for permission to be touched – we may feel singled out, exoticized, on display, or disrespected by the impulse itself.
It may be helpful to understand the examples above in terms of the group histories that can rest behind individual experiences.
While no one can learn enough about all groups of people to know every history around the ways physical aspects of self and group have been used to exclude or degrade, we can make efforts to recognize that physical contact of various kinds do have meaning and history beyond our intentions. The examples here are meant to suggest that we all bring with us a rich and varied range of experiences and perspectives that create the context within which others’ physical gestures will have meaning for us.
Last Updated: 10/22/08