Stop touching me!
March 29, 2011 6:05 PM   Subscribe

My coworker is touching me and I need to make her stop without making a scene.

The first instance: she was leaving for the day and she placed her hand on my shoulder while I was at my desk while saying goodbye. I did not know she was behind me, so she startled me. It wasn't a tap or a caress, just placing her hand on me for a couple of seconds.

So, that was innocent enough and though it was a little too familiar for me, I certainly wasn't going to mention it. But then yesterday, she came up behind me and ran her fingers through the back of my hair while saying hello. Again, she startled me, and I almost instinctively whipped around and hit her. I was so shocked I couldn't form words.

We're both women in our 30s. I don't know her orientation, but I don't think this is a come-on. We're the same race, nationality and class so this isn't a cultural thing. I think that we have very different boundaries. If this were a guy I'd be very assertive but I'm having trouble gauging what to do here. We work in a professional office environment for a large corporation.

We both work with my husband. She does not report to him, but he is at a higher level than both of us, and she works on projects for him. I'm a temp and she and my husband are both permanent employees. He intends to stay there for awhile and I don't want to sour his working relationships with anyone. She and I report to the same person. My husband is at the same level as that person and reports to someone else.

We work on similar projects, with the same people, but not generally with each other. I think she feels very friendly towards me because our working environment is 90% male and I think she likes having another woman to chitchat with. I like her fine but she's not someone I'd hang out with after work.

I cannot stand being "surprise touched" by anyone but my husband, probably because of parental abuse. I had what felt like mild PTSD for hours after the second incident, even though I knew intellectually she just meant to be friendly. I do not know what to say or how to deal with this at all. I was dreading coming in to work today and I was very relieved that she was not in the office all day.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (54 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"AHHHHHHH! Sorry. You scared me!"

Just overreact every time she does it. She'll get it. Pretend it's involuntary and she won't be able to take offense.
posted by musofire at 6:07 PM on March 29, 2011 [35 favorites]

I cannot stand being "surprise touched" by anyone but my husband, probably because of parental abuse.

I'm the same way, only it's not for any particular reason. I have a really jumpy startle reflex and, like you, I'm often afraid I'm going to whirl around and smack someone or otherwise behave inappropriately. This is on me, I think, because it's outside the range of normal. So I just explain it, more or less like that. "I'm sure you're just being friendly but I have a jumpy startle reflex and this sort of thing scares me. If you wouldn't mind not doing that, I'd appreciate it. So, how about ....." and then just go on talking about something else. No big deal. Other people at work really really shouldn't touch you without your permission generally and if this woman has different boundaries, it's okay to politely readjust those boundaries. If she turns into a weirdo about it for whatever reason, that's not your problem.
posted by jessamyn at 6:09 PM on March 29, 2011 [26 favorites]

The next time she does it, just step back and say "I'm sorry, I don't really like being touched." You can smile to defuse tension if you want. It may be uncomfortable to say it, but I think you'll be glad that you were forthright about it.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:13 PM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you dislike being touched, you're going to have to say something or do something like overreact/glare at her/look visibly annoyed.

The second instance is so strange you're just going to have to shut this down now.
posted by mleigh at 6:17 PM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Maybe less rejecting: "I'm sorry, but for some reason being touched by people other than my husband kind of freaks me out. I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to do that, and I appreciate the gesture, but would you mind just saying "hi" instead?"

This mixes something positive she can do, communicates subtextually that you don't dislike her as a person (which almost always needs to be done in awkward cases like this), while still communicating that the behavior is unwelcome in such a way that it's clear there's no workaround for her (i.e., it's not a behavior that's permitted to a class of people, like "close friends" or "family members" to which she might try to belong).
posted by amtho at 6:19 PM on March 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Be direct, be polite, and be cheerful. Repeat ad nauseaum until she gets it. If she tries to say, "Oh don't be so sensitive, it's not that big of a deal" then say, "Yes, actually, it is. This is the last time I'm going to ask you to stop."
posted by patronuscharms at 6:23 PM on March 29, 2011

We're both women in our 30s. I don't know her orientation, but I don't think this is a come-on. We're the same race, nationality and class so this isn't a cultural thing.

No matter what your own individual cultural backgrounds might be, I can't imagine a workplace culture that would condone this sort of behavior.

I'm assuming that this office is in an English-speaking, developed country.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:25 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

To be fair to you, the hair thing is very intimate and not at all "normal" touching that you should feel defensive about not liking. Not that you should feel that it's "wrong" to not like to be touched by coworkers (!), but this lady would cross anyone's line. That said, since you don't want to make a fuss, the best thing is probably to act like you're the weirdo (when, honestly, you are not) and go ahead and jump and say "ack! I startle easily, haha I'm such a strange lady!" She'll get the message, let's hope.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:26 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

"I startle easy. Please don't do that. You'll give me a heart attack!"

Say it with a smile and I bet the message will be received.
posted by inturnaround at 6:26 PM on March 29, 2011 [14 favorites]

I've had the odd problem with people who lean in closely - from behind me, over my shoulder, or beside me, leaning into me to show me something on the computer, for example. Also the occasional toucher who fake-massages my shoulders or something. For better or worse, I've tended to deal with these situations by joking about it - "Ack! Too close!" and moving away. The person has usually taken the hint.
posted by analog at 6:35 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe less rejecting: "I'm sorry, but for some reason being touched by people other than my husband kind of freaks me out. I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to do that, and I appreciate the gesture, but would you mind just saying "hi" instead?"

This is nice, but I wouldn't do it because, to me, the "other than my husband" phrasing sexualizes her actions, which is the opposite of what you want.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:36 PM on March 29, 2011 [20 favorites]

I had success in a similar situation by overplaying my reaction to the touch, making it awkward/weird for them. It earned me a bit of a reputation as a "weirdo" – particularly because one of the culprits was an attractive woman I simply wasn't interested in – but it was by far the best outcome possible, defusing a really weird situation by taking the "blame" on myself to no consequence.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:43 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I'm sorry, I don't really like being touched."

This is what you say. Until she stops.
posted by unSane at 6:48 PM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

"I'm sorry, I don't really like being touched."

I actually have said this to another woman verbatim before, and it totally worked. She laughed and backed away as if I were a little kooky, but she never touched me again. I happened to be clutching a large kitchen knife when I said it (she startled me as I was chopping food) so that might have been part of why it worked so well. She was also a very literal person without much sense of social niceties, so she might have reacted better to the "direct and blunt" method than another person might.

Still, if you say that or a variant, there will be no need for a scene. She will have no need to be offended, because you're letting her know it's all about you, it's just your thing that you don't like to be touched, at least by her.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:53 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it the kind of atmosphere, or do you have the kind of personality, where you can couch it in a bit of a joke? Like, "whoa, what's up with all touching! I'm married you know! back off or my husband will get jealous" har har...
posted by Kololo at 6:53 PM on March 29, 2011

Don't wait for her to do this again to react--after the hair thing, next time she might put her hand down your pants! Maybe your husband can help you write a very light, yet very firm, note which you can drop on her desk. If you like her otherwise, the note can include a lunch invite.
posted by Scram at 6:54 PM on March 29, 2011

IAMA workplace toucher. I do it inadvertently, unconsciously, naturally during the course of my interaction with others. (I have NEVER touched anyone's hair, that's over the line.) I am usually smart enough to pick up on any vibe that tells me you are uncomfortable with touching. I think you just need to tell her in a very nice way, "Sorry, I just can't stand being surprise touched!" Smile when you say it, laugh it off, this is not an unreasonable request. If that doesn't stop it, then you need another AskMefi question.
posted by raisingsand at 6:54 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The last time someone was touching me in an intrusive way (I am a woman, and it was a woman I was next to at a dinner party, who kept slapping and patting my arm) I just looked at her and said "Please stop doing that" and she looked a little miffed but she stopped. Sometimes you have to crash a little into somebody else's world briefly and there can be an awkward moment or two, but if imost people will snap out of it and realize your request is reasonable.
posted by zadcat at 7:07 PM on March 29, 2011

The first instance, in my opinion, was a trifle, but running her fingers through your hair is way out of line. You really don't have to say more than "Please don't touch me," or "Sorry, I don't like to be touched." You don't owe anyone any explanation about this. You have the right NOT to be touched.
posted by uans at 7:17 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am 99% sure if I were in this situation, I would follow the above advice

"I startle easy. Please don't do that. You'll give me a heart attack!"
Say it with a smile and I bet the message will be received."

posted by KogeLiz at 7:35 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

This really only works in conjunction with certain personas, but for posterity's sake I'll mention that loud repetition of the phrase 'PERSONAL SPACE, NO TOUCHING' while sweeping the hands and arms out around oneself works a charm.
posted by carsonb at 7:55 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

You could try, next time she does it, don't turn around, just say in a friendly voice, "Oh, [husband], you know better than to grope me like that at work." By "mistakenly" attributing it to your husband, you're not actually confronting her but you're clearly communicating that the behavior is inappropriate. If she says, "Don't worry, it's just me," you can say, "Well, we'd better stick to handshakes-- I don't want the boss to think anything inappropriate is going on."

If it happens again, say, "Please don't do that. I'm only a temp here--it's not appropriate."

If it happens again, go to her supervisor. You don't have to bring your husband into it at all.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:58 PM on March 29, 2011

For god's sake don't write a note- that makes the whole thing a production.

Just tell her the next time you can work it into the conversation that you are really not comfortable being touched, and have a strong negative reaction (not angry, startled) the next time she 'forgets' and touches you.

I hate being touched and it took three or four times of reiterating it before the really grope-y people understood that I wasn't their petting zoo.
posted by winna at 7:59 PM on March 29, 2011

I'm cynical, so keep that in mind:

These don't read like the actions of a standard overly-friendly person. From the perspective that you've provided I'm guessing that she's a not naturally-warm-person who is trying to ingratiate herself to you because of your husband's position. Accordingly, her attempts at warmth come across as awkward and forced-- because that's exactly what they are. It just reads like some gamma primate self-consciously trying to further her social position without natural, fluid charisma. And from the provided info, your husband seems like the most obvious motivation.

She wants to be a close friend, and quickly, but lacks the social graces to ingratiate herself to you naturally. Or she has social delays and acts like this to everyone, but you (or at least your husband) would have known about that for a long time. Musofire's initial comment seems like a great way to rebuff her without drama.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:02 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I keep thinking of Arrested Development: "No Touching!" for George Senior's jail time.

I had a touchy-feely boss for 8 years and put up with the clenchy arm-holding when she wanted to emphasise a point, the tapping of my leg if I was sitting next to her and she wanted my attention, reeealllly close talking etc etc, she even held my face in her hands several times whilst I was sitting and she was standing next to my desk to make her point. At that stage, I just came out with 'Love you to bits [Boss], but this [as I was removing her hands from my face] is bordering on 'dinner-n-dancing-first' touching, not sure that's a good idea' as I did so, and then responded to what she was saying on another matter without missing a step. Other people in my department just said 'knock it off!' or 'please don't do that' and that worked too.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:07 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone else.... just say it. " I'm sorry, but I don't really like being touched." I once had to do this to a female coworker who got in the habit of much the same. I put up with it until one day when she walked up behind me and started massaging my shoulders. ugh. I turned around and said "I know you mean nothing by it, but I'm not really comfortable with people touching me." She stopped.
posted by bradth27 at 8:32 PM on March 29, 2011

I don't like hugs and am not a touchy feely person. Touchy feeling huggy people don't seem to take that well to finding this out, and I'd rather not face a barrage of "oh but WHY? HUGs are WONDERFUL" type utterances.

My method:

When someone touches/hugs/attempts to hug me, I put my hand on their shoulder/arm (so they know I'm being friendly), and my other hand on my own neck/chest to signify "me". I then say "I'm sorry, I just don't like hugs/touching that much!" Then I shrug apologetically and smile. All this time, my hand is firmly on their arm or shoulder.

This way you disarm them using a physical technique they like/prefer (touching), you make yourself the person in the wrong rather than them by apologising, and you make your point clear.

Out of all the methods I've tried, this one is the best, keeps things friendly, and also keeps boundaries clear. The touching shoulder thing seems to work as a physical cue so people remember what you've told them, and the apologetic thing makes them very much less defensive.
posted by shazzam! at 8:38 PM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm a very demonstrative person (with close friends and family), but I agree with the poster's above that your co-worker's behavior is waaaaay over the line. I can't imagine any instance where I'd run my fingers through someone's hair (unless we were in bed together!), much less a co-worker. She is flat out harassing you; that is not appropriate workplace behavior, period. I don't think you should mince words if she tries something like that again. Whip around with an angry look and say, "Hey! Don't do that!"

You shouldn't apologize or make excuses for your discomfort -- she's the one who's out of line. If you try to laugh it off, she might keep escalating her inappropriate behavior.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:47 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I startle easy. Please don't do that. You'll give me a heart attack!"

This is my advice, too. No need to overthink this in terms of your husband being a coworker, really.
posted by desuetude at 8:56 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Easy there, tiger. You can look but please don't touch." Said with a smile, but with a tone that says there will be no more smiling if she transgresses again.
posted by jnnla at 9:32 PM on March 29, 2011

some people do this kind of thing. i don't get it, if you're not familiar why would you touch someone else anyway? besides being against policy its just socially awkward.

acting startled is a good idea.
posted by skwint at 9:39 PM on March 29, 2011

"I'm sorry, that was inappropriate."

Look directly into her eyes and say this meaningfully. Whether you are touchy feely yourself or not does NOT matter. Her actions were improper.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:14 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just tell people that I was raised by Germans so I'd prefer to shake hands.
posted by klangklangston at 10:23 PM on March 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's best just to be open, honest and direct - it's the only way you'll be sure to get the message across.

If she touches you again, just say, "I'm sorry but I really do not like to be touched by people outside of my family. It makes me uncomfortable. Does this make sense?"

You've explained the problem, and disclosed a personal detail that's not too personal ("family" is pretty broad), and you've also explained how it makes you feel without sharing your PTSD experience (and thus inviting more intrusive and unwanted behaviour in the form of questions about your past).

Finally, you've lobbed the ball back in her court by asking if she understands. If she says she understands, your problem is solved. If she continues to ask why, repeat the same answer: "I really do not like to be touched by people outside of my family. It makes me uncomfortable." Repeat it until she understands or stops asking.

She may touch you again. If so, do it again.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:08 PM on March 29, 2011

I had the same problem (the Ask is in my posting history somewhere). Tell her once to not touch you again. Don't make it a question. Make it clear to her that it's inappropriate. Also, do it before she touches you again, so you're in a calm frame of mind. Try something like, "Toucher, you make me feel very uncomfortable when you touch me. Please don't do it again.". Then stop and look at her. Be prepared to take a step back in case she tries to touch you during the apology (like my harasser did).

Then, every time it happens after that, make a note of it and go directly to her manager. Explain that you're being sexually harassed and that you've spoken to the individual already and asked them to stop it. Take your notes with you about the times that it's happened, and show them to that supervisor. Don't waste time speaking to The Toucher again. Also, make it clear that you're raising a complaint about this behaviour, not just moaning about it.

If the company is halfway sensible, they won't involve your husband at all. He's not in your chain of command, so there is no conceivable way he could be a part of this. Even if he was your manager, HR would have to get someone else to deal with it.
posted by Solomon at 11:45 PM on March 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would really try to avoid mentioning your husband or using any sexual innuendo, even in jest. For all you know she wants to have a threesome. Shut it down using one of the more neutral approaches above.
posted by benzenedream at 12:51 AM on March 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'd go for the briefest possible polite response, e.g. "(Name), please don't do that", or as someone above said "Hey, look but don't touch". Make eye contact while you say it.

Explaining why you don't want to be touched is inviting a discussion into how up tight you are, or how your mother didn't hug you enough, or why your stated preferences are ridiculous in some way.
posted by emilyw at 1:04 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Next time, display a somewhat exaggerated EEK! physical recoil, and say, Whew! You scared me! Look, I have a pretty strong startle reflex to being touched unexpectedly, so it's probably safer for both of us if you didn't do that.
posted by taz at 1:18 AM on March 30, 2011

I really prefer the exaggerated physical recoil and claim (truth) of startle reflex, because some people, when you tell them you don't like being touched, they go out of their way to desensitize you to it (even if they don't use that terminology) because clearly it's a choice thing, and to explain how it's for your own good because everyone needs human contact, and hug you all the time. OMG - the memories, I need to have another shower, excuse me.
posted by b33j at 1:55 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, lord. I feel for you anonymous, I really do. My startle reflex is turned up to 11 and - adding insult to injury - I'm ticklish and squeak really loud when surprised. I've worked with otherwise perfectly rational adults who found exploiting this completely hilarious, much to my chagrin.

Looking back, I wish I'd nipped their behavior in the bud and immediately insisted on respect for my personal boundaries. Outside the office I'm a very touchy-feely person, but I can't fathom why anyone would think running fingers through a coworkers hair (or purposefully startling someone 'for fun' again and again) is in any way appropriate.

You mentioned that if this were a guy you'd have no trouble being very assertive in asking him to stop. I see no reason why this should be handled any differently. You're entitled not to feel dread at the prospect of going to work. Don't apologize and behave as if you're expecting special treatment; you're not too sensitive, your coworker is overstepping bounds. Be clear and professional in your behavior and expect the same from her.
posted by Space Kitty at 1:58 AM on March 30, 2011

Yeah, I know what you mean. Last time I had a coworker doing this, when I told her to stop, she accused me of being "over-sensitive", and said she was "just being friendly!"

She finally kept her hands to herself after I compared it to what she's teaching her own kid: they're taught that nobody's allowed to touch them without permission, so why would she think it's okay to touch an adult without permission?!? Co-worker was mildly offended, but she did stop the touching.
posted by easily confused at 2:59 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was dreading coming in to work today
This is a massive red flag. Whenever I feel like this about some aspect of my life the gloves just come right off and I know it's time to deal with it directly and without fail.

As a personal anecdote, in a previous job I was once chatting with a female co-worker and, after I cracked a joke, she laughed, leaned in, and placed the palm of her hand flat on my chest. The involuntary look of total and abject horror spoke volumes and it never happened again; I recall being unable to speak for a few seconds after it happened.
posted by asymptotic at 4:51 AM on March 30, 2011

"Please don't do that."

Saying, "I don't like it" makes it sound like it's a personal quirk or something with you.

If she does it again, say "Don't ever do that again," or, if she acts like she's doing it to be provocative, "Get your hands off me. I mean it."
posted by BibiRose at 5:32 AM on March 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

What musofire said. But, skip the apology.
posted by xm at 7:26 AM on March 30, 2011

Listen for her to walk behind you, and visibly display a startle. Shouldn't be hard. "You scared me the other day, and now I'm really jumpy. I have a hair-trigger startle reflex."
posted by theora55 at 8:14 AM on March 30, 2011

Don't prefix this with "I'm sorry"- you really have nothing to apologize for. Don't force yourself to smile; you're serious, and you have no need to cushion her from feeling the seriousness of the situation. Don't explain your position; your body is your own and there is no need to justify yourself, and in any case when you are thrust into an awkward situation the less mental effort any given solution requires the more likely it is that you'll be able to put it into practice.

"Don't touch me." That's all you need. If that doesn't work, then go to HR. This is not overreacting- you already dread going to work.
posted by Jpfed at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with the poeple who say this needs direct action. Workplace touching for any reason that doesn't involve a business-related handshake is totally inappropriate, and it would be perfectly reasonable to simply say, "I'm not okay with the touching. Please don't do that." You could probably be gentler or firmer according to what you feel is the appropriate tone, but I do think a direct and unambiguous request not to touch is perfectly in order here.

And obviously, if it continues after that, it's an HR matter.
posted by Decani at 9:43 AM on March 30, 2011

Jpfed and others have it right. You should simply say "Don't touch me." You needn't explain why, you needn't say you are uncomfortable. It is none of the other person's business why you don't want to be touched. I wouldn't even say 'please.' but rather don't touch me in a way that shows you mean fucking business.

You mention in your post.

" If this were a guy I'd be very assertive but I'm having trouble gauging what to do here"

Being a man, this might sound like I am clueless, but why should it be different? Why should you be more uncertain of being assertive? Running fingers through a co-workers hair is a serious MAJOR no-noo regardless of genders involved. You need to treat this in no way different than if your coworker was a man.
posted by xetere at 9:54 AM on March 30, 2011

I'm a hugger. I love to hug people. Its such a well known trait that some friends come up to me for their hugs when I go places (oh, good, you're here, I need a hug).

I also know lots of people who don't like being touched for whatever reason, and I respect that. All I need to hear is "Please don't touch me", and that's the end of it. Hopefully that's all she needs to hear, too. But as the hair thing is weirding me out (the touchy feely hugger), if she doesn't stop after that, escalate to your boss or to HR, whatever is best for you.
posted by sandraregina at 10:06 AM on March 30, 2011

Do not apologize, period. "Please don't touch me" is probably best, although if your husband weren't on staff "WTF is WRONG WITH YOU" would not be inappropriate, given the hair thing. But don't apologize.

In another life, an older man was miffed that the company hired a twenty-something female (me) as a manager, instead of promoting him. The first time he draped his big meaty arm around me, I said, "Don't touch me." The second time he did it, in a meeting, I said "Don, I'm your boss. If I want you to touch me, I'll assign you to touch me."

Why yes I do have issues, thanks for asking.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 11:16 AM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing others who say not to apologize.

The only touching that takes place in a business setting is a handshake. All you need to say is "stop that" to this obviously inappropriate behaviour.

You don't need to explain all the reasons why you're such an unusual person and have had such a variety of weird and wonderful experiences that have made you react negatively to inappropriate behaviour. It's not up to YOU to explain YOURself when someone else is out of line.
posted by tel3path at 11:32 AM on March 30, 2011

No apology! And no smile.

This is very wack invasiveness. Never mind your history: it was COMPLETELY skeevy and weird.

I vote for a very severe (while still calm) response, along the lines of "Don't EVER touch me again. It's completely inappropriate."
posted by Lizzle at 3:46 PM on March 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think by now you've got some great advice but I just need to say a woman running her fingers through her coworkers hair is so far from appropriate work behavior that I think this woman should be reprimanded. I'd say flat out "That makes me very uncomfortable, please don't ever do that again". Good luck!
posted by dmbfan93 at 4:13 PM on March 30, 2011

I've told a lot of people not to touch me in my time* and have found "please don't touch me" combined with politeness and a smile usually gets the best results. Sometimes people don't remember or are self-centred enough to ignore my instructions at which point I drop the politeness and smile.

*I'm so touch-phobic my co-workers sometimes play the game of manoeuvring me round the office as if pushing gigantic fleshy magnets together. It's funny for a bit and eventually their bleeding stops and we can all go back to work.
posted by fullerine at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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