Personal Space: Are We Too Touchy?

It's not easy being a private person in a hugger's world.

Wall Street Journal writer Elizabeth Bernstein is, apparently, a "touch-ee": quite against her will, she's constantly being hugged, nudged, patted, high-fived and stroked by her coworkers.

"You're so friendly," said one. "You're always stressed," said another. "You're self-deprecating, and I want to give you a boost," said a third. "You're short," a close friend said.

Although the touching is platonic, it makes Bernstein uncomfortable, and she asks, why is this okay?

It's a weird irony that, even as sexual harassment policies have gotten stricter and more ubiquitous, the rules of personal space have become more lax. Whereas a generation ago no one would have gone beyond a businesslike handshake (unless, I guess, they were having a pre-sexual harassment policy affair), nowadays hugging, sympathetic pats and slaps on the back are commonplace. And it's tricky because, where some people are vigilant about personal space, others see touching as a natural way to express warmth and sympathy. And rejecting a friendly touch is rude.

When in doubt, of course, the article recommends avoiding workplace touching full-stop.

Corporate lawyers and human-resource types say we should always keep our hands to ourselves in the workplace. After all, touch is subjective. One person's friendly pat can quickly turn into another's threatened lawsuit.

Well, yeah, but it's not usually that simple: I'm thinking less here of the office lecher trying to administer a back run than a friend who's just more touchy than you. One is easy to repel; the other is, as Bernstein rightfully puts it, a minefield.

While, as one boss in the piece puts it, "Everyone is huggy now, and it's not creepy," it can still be unwanted. Touch may express caring, but just as often it means nothing: the obligatory hug of a friend's new girlfriend at the end of the evening, the awkward lunge where it's just easier to go with a hug than try an impersonal kiss on the cheek and a dart backwards. Situations like this can leave you yearning for the clear-cut formula of a European double-peck, even a world in which a handshake between women didn't feel like a rejection. The truth is, we live in a society where there's often a pretense of warmth very quickly - and with this comes touching. Wanting personal space may be an option, but it feels unfriendly, cold, uptight even. For some people, the more straightforward world of an office might feel like a relief from this uncertainty. And so touching there is a particular imposition.

I always found this trickier, when I worked in an office, when we colleagues socialized. Like, do you do the standard friend-hug at a bar after drinks together, but not the next day in the office? Some people who work from home reminisce in the article about the warmth of human contact that they miss, and that's true: warmth and empathy keeps people going. But when that physical expression is more obligatory, or awkward, than reassuring - well, the stress can outweigh it. Which will then call for a soothing hand on your shoulder.

Touching Me, Touching You-At Work [Wall Street Journal]