The new guidelines for touching at work

What, too much?
What, too much?
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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For one woman, it was a male boss who patted the top of her hair as he walked past her desk. Another recalls the manager who touched her shoulder whenever he wanted a favor. Yet another recalls shrinking away from a colleague’s hug.

The recent controversy over former US vice president Joe Biden’s habit of touching women in an overly familiar way has prompted a broader cultural conversation about the myriad ways in which women regularly have their physical boundaries intruded upon. The dispatches many of us are hearing—from colleagues, spouses, friends—are more complicated than the egregious misconduct that came to light a year and a half ago as the #MeToo movement gained momentum. Groping co-workers’ breasts at a company retreat or exposing yourself to a colleague in a locked office would clearly fall into the category of sexual harassment. But there are also more subtle physical interactions in the workplace that, while perhaps not actionable, are nonetheless discomfiting.

Given the reality that many people—both men and women—prefer not to be touched by people they don’t know well, it’s worth asking the question: Does respecting other people’s boundaries mean we ought to avoid touching at work at all?

Not necessarily, says Jodi Smith, founder of the etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith. “I don’t think we need to live in a world in which no one touches anyone else,” says Smith, who previously worked in human resources. “There are ways we can be respectful and figure out the different levels” at which people feel at ease.

So what are those ways, exactly? Quartz spoke with Smith about her guidelines for appropriate behavior, how to avoid awkward situations, and what to do if you find yourself on the receiving end of a touch that makes you feel uncomfortable.

Keep a light touch

When it comes to the more everyday forms of workplace touching, a lot of what’s appropriate or inappropriate depends on context. “In general,” Smith says, “shaking hands is okay; fist bumps, high fives—this is just hand-to-hand contact. A light tap on the shoulder, a quick pat on the back that’s less than five seconds, those tend to be okay.”

By contrast, Smith says, “anything that’s prolonged is going to become more of an issue.” This might include resting a hand on another person’s shoulder or squeezing the upper part of their arm. And definitely don’t touch any part of a co-worker’s body that’s not their arms, shoulders, or upper back. “Anything else on the body, [you] shouldn’t be touching,” Smith advises.

And please stay away from the hair

“That’s a very intimate interaction,” says Smith. White people, take extra note.

The question of hugging

Is it okay to hug a co-worker? Under certain conditions, a hug may be fine, Smith says. But there are several things to keep in mind. First, be aware of gender, age, and power differences. If you’re the boss, the people you supervise may not feel comfortable telling you they don’t want to be hugged. And if you’re a 40-year-old man, no matter what your intentions, it’s best to avoid embracing a 21-year-old female intern.

Keep in mind differences of body type as well, says Smith—a hug may feel much more intimate for a woman with breasts than for a long, lean man. And avoid full-body embraces. “In general, you can lean at the waist, and your shoulders are touching without much of the rest of your body touching,” she notes.

Consider the context of the industry that you’re working in as well; hugging is probably less standard at a buttoned-up bank than it is if you’re in hospitality or public relations. And when in doubt, err on the side of caution. “If you have to think that much about it, you probably shouldn’t be hugging the person; chances are you don’t know them well enough to hug,” Smith says.

What to do when you’re the touchy-feely type

There’s no situation in which you should be walking up behind someone and kissing their head, Biden-style. But if you’re the type of person who’s more of a literal backslapper, Smith says, the key is to be “extraordinarily overt” about your communication style.

A new manager, Smith says, should tell the team about their touchy-feely tendencies and ask co-workers to let them know upfront—whether in person or via email or simply on a Post-It note—if they don’t like being touched, full-stop. (A similar model is common in yoga classes, wherein teachers will often ask students to raise their hands if they don’t want to be touched for adjustments.) Let your colleagues know that you will happily alter your behavior, and that you actively want to be corrected if you misstep.

But crucially, it’s your job to be aware of other people’s cues. If you lay a hand on someone’s shoulder and feel them tense up, that’s your signal to keep your hands to yourself. Don’t assume that your behavior is acceptable just because no one is saying otherwise. “People who are in positions of power need to be hyper vigilant in this day and age about touching other people,” Smith says.

To that point, Smith tells the story of leading a dining etiquette class for international MBA students years ago. She went to adjust a young man’s grip on his fork and he immediately jumped back, at which point she realized that this kind of touch wasn’t okay, given his religious background. “From that moment forth, I knew that it was my obligation to make sure that everyone in the room felt comfortable around me,” she says. Now, whenever she’s leading a workshop, she will first ask, “May I touch you?”

How to handle touchy-feely colleagues

Sometimes it’s possible to correct colleagues on the spot. If you have a well-intentioned co-worker who keeps sneaking up on you while you’re wearing your noise-canceling headphones, Smith recommends language like this: “Bob, when you come up and tap me on the shoulder from behind, it really scares me to kingdom come because I don’t hear you coming. Instead, if you could come around to my peripheral vision, that’s a better way to get my attention.”

If the touch feels more intrusive—say, a lingering touch on your forearm—Smith advises taking a literal step back to create some physical distance. Then explain that you don’t come from a touchy background and that you’d like to keep things to a handshake. “Be as specific as possible so people know exactly what they need to do, then move forward,” she says.

The bottom line

In truth, the rules of the post-#MeToo era aren’t that complicated, Smith says. “The men who are polite aren’t really throwing up their hands and saying, now I can’t touch anybody; it’s only the men who aren’t getting it who are saying that.”

Smith says men who keep thinking up new questions about hugging or pats on the back ought to model their behavior after their unflustered male colleagues, the ones who have greeted the concept of respecting other people’s physical space with equanimity and calm.

“For people who are really having a hard time grasping it, it makes me wonder how they manage to tie their shoes and get out the door,” Smith says. “Treat people the way they would be like to treated and with respect, and you’ll do okay.”