two people who are very physical with me, only one of whom I like
January 24, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I have two classmates who casually touch me a lot. We're all women. I dislike one of them, but not the other. Is there any way to dissaude the one I don't like from touching me while allowing the one I do like to keep patting me on the shoulder, etc, without coming across as a giant asshole?

I'm in an intensive language class with a small group of international people. I'm an American. Let's call these two other women Amala and Min. Amala comes from a medium-sized town in India. She has seemed sort of overwhelmed and homesick from the beginning, so at first I made an effort to be nice to her. But most of our conversations end up with her correcting my grammar in the language we're both learning, and she also seems to get annoyed with me for reasons I don't understand. She got worked up and almost offended, for example, when I told her I couldn't eat wheat because it makes me sick.

At any rate, I'm not feeling terribly friendly towards her, but she still starts up conversations with me. I talk to her briefly to be polite. In these conversations, if we're sitting down she tends to put her hand on my thigh, or if we're standing, an arm around my shoulders, etc. I know it's meant casually, not sexually. But I don't like people who I don't like touching me. The last time she did this I had a really strong internal reaction: STOP IT!

At any rate, I would normally just disengage with this sort of person or shrug away from all physical contact until she got the picture, but we're in a very small class and I'm worried about being mean. Because there's also this girl Min in my class, who is from a large city in China, and who I'm getting to be friends with. And as we've gotten to be better friends, she's taken to clapping me on the back or leaning against me shoulder-to-shoulder when we're standing around listening to our teacher for a long time. Or, in other words, Min uses about the same level of physical contact with me as Amala does, but when Min does it, it doesn't bother me.

So, the problem is: I would like to disengage with Amala without turning this into a high school mean-girls sort of thing. And to say, "I'm not really one for physical contact" to Amala, and then five minutes later turn around cheerfully when Min taps me on the head seems a bit too much like rubbing it in Amala's face. On the other hand, Min seems like an interesting person and a potential real friend, so I'd rather not rebuff her casual, chummy gestures just to pretend I avoid physical contact with everyone. Good lord, I feel like I'm in high school again. Is there a grown-up solution to this problem?
posted by colfax to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well it seems Amala has more of a deep version of touching. Arms around you, hand on leg, that's a bit more intense/personal than a pat on the head. I would just tell her "look, can you stop touching me so intensely. It really bugs me".

Otherwise you can do the total freak out so she can get the hint.
posted by stormpooper at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2012

"Please don't touch me" or "please don't do that" in a calm but direct manner is all that is necessary. You never need to explain why you don't want to be touched by someone. If she is offended, so be it, but asking someone to stop unwanted touching is never "mean".
posted by murrey at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

Ok, so, question: Does Amala do this to anyone else in the class, or just you?

'Cause it sounds to me like Amala reeeeealy wants to take on the "den mother" role, where Min's body language reads more like an equal or a dependent.

If I'm right, then the solution is to find someone else who needs the den mother treatment more than you do. Is there someone isolated or homesick in the class that you could steer Amala towards?
posted by LN at 9:49 AM on January 24, 2012

hey, it's your body, your rules. tough shit if she doesn't like it. you could say something, or if you want to try to be more subtle, flinch the next time she touches you and move away. pretty hard to miss that signal.
posted by facetious at 9:50 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Certainly, you don't have to explain why you don't like being touched, but in a situation like this, especially where you would like to reduce any drama or offense, it would help to give a reason.

I've fallen back on this being a cultural/size thing. I'm Irish and where I was raised (at least) people don't really hug that much - well, not unless you're either a bit drunk or you're not going to see people for six months. I lived in LA for a long time and it seemed like the capital of huggers, so I used to preemptively bring this up if I thought I was in for a round of hugging at goodbyes. No one ever took offense. I'm also pretty small and occasionally I said that was why I didn't like hugging that much - it made me feel overwhelmed. Again, no one took offense at that. But I didn't have a situation where I was trying to balance one sort of hugging against another, which would have been a bit more complicated.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:56 AM on January 24, 2012

The next time you're in a one-on-one situation with Amala and she touches you, shy away and say very kindly, "Oh, I don't really like physical contact." Do not do this when Min is around.

With Min, engage in reciprocal contact so if she hears something from Amala she won't wonder too much about it.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:00 AM on January 24, 2012

Is this a class where discussions of one's home culture come up with any regularity? If so, you could describe how unusual casual forms of touching is in the US, especially between the neck and knees, and how it makes you uncomfortable. It might mean Min touching you less, but still would involve no offense being taken by any party.

(Unfortunately with the personalities in the room, it sounds like this might change Min's behavior more than Amala's, but it would still give you a useful way to remind Amala that touching makes you uncomfortable the next time she tries to feel you up.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:04 AM on January 24, 2012

It sounds to me like Amala isn't respecting your boundaries, on more levels than touch. She corrects your grammar and doesn't believe what you say about your dietary issues? Maybe the grammar thing is not as egregious among fellow language learners as it would be in other circs, but still she sounds kind of obnoxious. You may be wanting to cool things down with her, generally. Whatever you do about the touching, it's a sensitive thing, in a group like that, when you move away from one person and get close to another. The rejected one will notice it, for sure. But it happens.

As for the touching, I'd say don't make any kind of announcement about not liking touch in general if it's not true. Just move out of reach when she does it and if she really persists, tell her to stop. If she doesn't see the difference between back-slapping and touching someone on the thigh, that's her problem.
posted by BibiRose at 10:06 AM on January 24, 2012

You really, really have the right to just ask Amala not to touch you. You do not have to justify the difference between her and Min.

Your body is not public property. It is totally permissible for you to discriminate as to who has access to it. That is NOT MEAN.
posted by endless_forms at 10:20 AM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

I wouldn't give Amala any broad reason like, "I don't like people touching me" in case she might take it upon herself to educate everyone, especially Min, about the fact that you don't care for touching.

I support the shrugging off method and a direct request to stop touching.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I recently had to tell my friend that her personal bubble seemed a lot smaller than mine. I like her but she was always standing right next to my face. Since then she's backed off a bit and if she forgets I just say 'bubble'.
posted by whalebreath at 10:54 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would make a blanket rule so there's no confusion and no drama. I mean, if you really like Min touching you, I mean like like, that should be done outside of class anyway. Otherwise, it's a neutral thing and something you can do without, right? So just say "I'm uncomfortable with people touching me" and apply it to both women.
posted by desjardins at 11:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have touchy feely huggy friends, which is very sweet amongst themselves but I'm not very comfortable with it personally. So coming from someone who doesn't like that period, I unapologetically explain to everyone straight up whenever it comes up (eg. everyone's hugging when departing...ugh), it's not you, I just don't really care for all this hugging and touching. I let it slide when its too awkward to bring it up, and have to remind the particularly touchy ones occasionally. But I do know people use physical touch as an extension of warmth and connection so in lieu I say something that conveys something to that effect to share in that sort of sentiment, and not seem rejectionist.

In my opinion, if you are selectively allowing touchy feely from one person and not the other, it would be pretty obvious that you like the one person and not the other. I don't think that's a big deal, people naturally like some over others. If this is a concern and makes you self conscious, it's probably best to say it to the one, if the other hears it and stops also, leave it alone, and in private say something to the effect of I feel like we're really getting along, I really enjoy spending time with you. That sort of thing. You should be able to continue to develop the friendship from there.
posted by joannqy at 11:12 AM on January 24, 2012

Instead of making it a blanket statement "I don't like people touching me" why don't you just say it as a specific statement. "I'd rather you didn't touch [my leg]. It must be a cultural thing." And if it so happens that you never ask Min to stop, that's because Min isn't touching your leg, she's bumping shoulders with you.
posted by aimedwander at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I second the suggestion to couch the issue in terms of cultural thing. It actually IS a cultural thing. I recall the time I would walk with my friends (we were all males) with arms around each others' shoulders. And if she is living in the states, you kindly mentioning this issue to her will help her out in the long run.
posted by 7life at 11:58 AM on January 24, 2012

At some point, when you're in a position where no one can overhear, say to her very quietly, "I think you ought to know that in this culture, touching someone's thigh is considered a sexual gesture," in a confidential, non-accusing sort of way. That way, you're offering a helpful correction that is hopefully useful to her - and the behavior will either stop, or have been redefined as an overtly suggestive maneuver, which will make a stronger reaction to the contact much more easily justifiable. And none of this should be even remotely construed by anyone as having anything to do with Min.

That's my thought, anyway. There might be pitfalls in it that I'm not seeing, a'course.
posted by mie at 12:30 PM on January 24, 2012

In my limited experience in India, expectations about touching and personal space are quite different. It's common to see male friends walking around holding hands. I don't remember it quite as often with women, but it might not have been quite as surprising so it didn't stick with me as much. The arms-around-shoulders sort of thing you're describing seems exactly like the kinds of touching I remember seeing.

This is not to diminish your ability to set the rules about your body and who touches it and how, but it is very likely that this is authentically a cultural thing and doesn't represent any kind of domineering-ness or ownership-expression.
posted by heresiarch at 12:44 PM on January 24, 2012

You say that Min uses about the same level of physical contact with you as Amala does, but it doesn't seem that way to me at all. Thigh-touching and arm around shoulder are more intimate acts than clapping you on the back and leaning against your shoulder. So I would go with pointing out the specific things Amala does as culturally uncomfortable, rather than saying "I don't like being touched (in general)" because that's clearly not true.

Also, other commenters have already said this, but having people you like more than others really mean, even in a small class. If you're all out of high school, Amala should understand this.
posted by michelle lightning at 1:29 PM on January 24, 2012

*"having people you like more than others ISN'T really mean"
posted by michelle lightning at 1:30 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my limited experience in India, expectations about touching and personal space are quite different. It's common to see male friends walking around holding hands. I don't remember it quite as often with women, but it might not have been quite as surprising so it didn't stick with me as much. The arms-around-shoulders sort of thing you're describing seems exactly like the kinds of touching I remember seeing.

My parents are from India (though I was born and raised in the US) and this varies although there is some general truth to it (not in my family, but when visiting I've seen this kind of touching).

However, I've worked in with Indian people in the US who are from India, and they all know American personal space rules well enough that I've never seen it be an issue (OP's profile indicates US).

So yes, she might be doing this because of her cultural associations but that doesn't mean you should allow it.
posted by sweetkid at 3:11 PM on January 24, 2012

Hi, everyone. Thanks very much for your thoughts and for the permission to say no.
posted by colfax at 4:58 AM on January 25, 2012

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