Touching and Personal Space : Protocol Consultants International

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Touching and Personal Space

by Judith Bowman on 06/30/19

We thank Joe Biden for heightening awareness of personal space issues today and the importance of respecting unspoken boundaries of personal space. The larger issue is perhaps a generational one as some men of previous generations today fall short and have not evolved which the "me too" movement has helped advance. Although I am sure Joe Biden means no disrespect, a 70-year old man should know the difference between basic appropriate versus inappropriate behavior. Touching, feeling, caressing, rubbing noses, massaging shoulders ... kissing a five year old child on her lips and smelling women's hair is not appropriate. We should all be aware of personal space issues and clued into reading silent signals and body language of others.

Personal space is that undeclared area around us which gives us our comfort zone.   Comfort zones change from country to country, culture to culture and even person to person. There are also different office cultures which vary. For example, a Silicon Valley start-up might foster lighthearted casual physical contact versus a more professional setting i.e. a conservative financial services or investment firm. Many workplaces today are being designed to be more aesthetically relaxed with open work spaces, big kitchen areas, warm colors and even free food which, in addition to encouraging "team spirit" is also more conducive to physical contact, high fives and hugging with which many are uncomfortable. Just because an office has no borders does not suggest there are none.

Generally speaking, we here in the U.S. prefer approximately one arm's length distance for our comfort zone, while those in England prefer more like two arms-length of distance. In England, royalty is not permitted to touch and PDA's even among the closest of married couples are frowned upon. It is interesting to note that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were renowned for holding hands which was unusual for the President of the United States (our royalty) to be publicly affectionate. The beauty in knowing the rules is knowing when it is okay to break them! In Asia, i.e. China and Japan prefer more like three arm's length of distance for their comfort zone. Touching is to be avoided at all costs while those in Latin and Arab countries prefer more like three inches for their comfort zone! American business women: please be alerted to this important cultural distinction and do not take offense. This is simply their way. Interestingly Latin women are recognized for dressing in ways we consider to be provocative i.e. short tight skirts, plunging necklines, bright colors and stiletto heels which might not necessarily discourage such behavior with Latin men.

Before we assume a familiarity that does not exist and is not mutual, when it comes to the initial greeting, if you are a kisser, hugger, touchy feeling person and go in for the kiss the hug, the embrace: read the other person's body language to know if they are encouraging or deferring the overture. Assuming others welcome your touch, hug, kiss, caress is misplaced.

Intimacy is so termed for a reason.  Being intimate suggests a co-relationship.   If the emotion is one-sided, then it is not a true relationship. The word "Relationship" itself implies "relating" to one another and not a one-sided singular existence.

All the rules of etiquette and protocol are in place to make others feel comfortable to eliminate the most remote possibility of an awkward moment and to make co-existing with family friends neighbors and perfect strangers easier not more disagreeable or uncomfortable. You need to 'earn the right' to cross the line. Discipline yourself to be sensitive and acutely aware of silent signals and body language at the start.    
How to avoid the unwanted intimacy:
Take Control:
  • extend a rigid arm/handshake to maintain "arms' length" distance.
  • say, "I'm not really a touchy, feeling person."
  • insert a physical barrier - a desk or portfolio until the moment passes.
  • humor is another deflector.
  • make meaningful eye-contact and speak with your eyes.
  • say, "you are making me uncomfortable."
When to go with it:
  • after a big project completion
  • major life announcement/event (engagement/wedding) or a personal loss
  • huge sale
How to engage:
  • ask, 'may I give you a hug?"

  • close your eye
  • whisper (while hugging)... just ask Joe Biden how breaking that rule went!
  • hug peers every day; make it special
  • hug in a way you would feel uncomfortable with your spouse standing next to you
  • hug from behind
  • hug in the restroom
  • sniff another person
Inappropriate behavior happens. Remember, it is how you handle the situation - what you do and say and how you say and do it that is key. Don't be the office Joe Biden. Too much touching can land you in the human resources office... or destroy future life opportunities (!) faster than you can say, "give me a hug."

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