With the holiday season in full swing, it’s an especially good time to clarify what appropriate touch is. Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for people to get uncomfortable at holiday events or gatherings because of someone crossing boundaries. For example, what if you’re at an office Christmas party and everyone has been enjoying a few cocktails, and people start getting touchy? What would you do if a coworker started hanging onto your arm or leaning on your shoulder?
It’s important to know that we have a voice in all situations, and that includes public, private or work gatherings. We have the right to stand up for ourselves, to leave a party and to say “no” to things that make us uncomfortable – this includes inappropriate touch. Even if it’s something seemingly “small,” you don’t have to tolerate these actions if it’s bothersome or triggering to you. Sometimes, people worry that if they speak up about this kind of thing, it will be dramatic or hurt the other person’s feelings. But you should know that politely rejecting touch by saying things like, “I don’t like to be touched there,” or “I’m uncomfortable when I’m crowded,” communicates boundaries without blaming, and is perfectly acceptable. If it doesn’t seem right to speak up, it’s also okay for you to sit in a different part of the room or go home early.
What about those on the other side? Can we still show physical affection in the workplace without accidentally crossing lines? The answer, thankfully, is yes! The following are relatively universal thought processes for most settings, including office environments and holiday festivities:
- A handshake is an entirely acceptable form of touch. Petting the person’s hand or arm or hanging onto the handshake for longer than a couple of seconds is moving toward inappropriate touch.
- A hug can be an appropriate form of contact as long as both parties are signaling that they want it and it is suitable for the relationship. Specifically, a side-hug or frontal hug that does not press chests together is within healthy boundaries. But bear in mind that some people may feel threatened by any hug at a work event. To be sure, considering saying, “Merry Christmas! May I hug you?”
- Light and short touches on the arm or top of the back are also appropriate in most circumstances.
One thing to keep in mind if a person pulls away or has body language that is not receptive to a light touch or hug, these are your cues to know not to repeat the touch, no matter how innocent it seems. You never know what a person has gone through that has impacted how they view physical contact.
Everyone, no matter their history, has a right to protect their body from whomever, whenever. Listen to people’s words and pay attention to their nonverbal cues. Creating and sticking to guidelines about touch is a crucial first step towards safer professional environments. But even more importantly, we need to make sure that we give people space to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.
Everyone should be allowed to voice their wants and needs without being judged for it. In the end, it’s all about respect. And that means finding common ground to make sure we are still “in-touch” with each other in a safe and appropriate way.