Be Curious, Not Invasive . . .Physical Contact & Personal Boundaries

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.

Boundaries Vary

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 Examples

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.

  • Pregnant women may be sensitive to being touched because they experience such gestures in the context of women having been controlled legally and socially and treated as property. Because men do not experience a parallel phenomenon, for some women the (mostly well-intentioned) touching of pregnant bellies is a reminder of past and/or current sexism. Besides, some of us do not like being touched anywhere at any time outside of our personal relationships – pregnancy does not render a woman's body publicly accessible.
  • People with physical disabilities can be frustrated by assumptions about their abilities because others so often assume them to be incapable of everything simply because they are unable to do one thing. (Additionally, jumping in to help without asking if it’s needed can throw people with certain disabilities off balance.)
  • Immigrants and others from outside the U.S. may be uncomfortable with physical attention to non-Western clothing or accessories because of fears related to the ways that “foreigners” have been targeted for violence or discrimination on the basis of their appearance. Also the history of “spectacle ethnography” – observing people regarded as racially and/or culturally inferior in order to affirm the superiority of one’s own race, culture, or both – can make some immigrants or others from outside the U.S. wary of undue attention.
  • And, perhaps most common of all, African-Americans may feel angered or overwhelmed by having their hair touched (something non-black people tend to do out of naïve curiosity about this very visible difference) because they recall the ways that Africans in America were examined and handled during the period of enslavement (not to mention many other historical and ongoing forms of oppressive physical violation or invasion).

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.