Is this an individual quirk or the norm for some group?
June 19, 2013 8:23 PM   Subscribe

Something very strange happened to me yesterday, and I'm trying to figure out whether this sort of behavior was an individual quirk or if I've run afoul of some obscure but very strong taboo. More detail inside, but basically I asked somebody to step aside by tapping her shoulder and she ended up shouting at me and slapping me several times with both hands on my shoulder. I don't understand quite what happened there.

Toward the end of a dance class, I went to the back of the room where somebody was in front of my water bottle. The teacher was still talking, so instead of saying "Excuse me" I tapped this person on the shoulder. As she stepped aside, she said something like, "You know, you can just talk to me and I'll move. You don't have to touch me." (I use quotation marks, but of course I'm paraphrasing from memory.) I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't want to make noise." I meant to continue, "while the teacher is talking," but she interrupted me to shout, "Well, that's how I communicate. By talking, not like this." And then she slapped me repeatedly with both hands on my shoulder, not hard enough to bruise but much, much harder than I had touched her. I said, "I'm sorry. I had no idea this was offensive. I won't do it again." She said something in reply, but she mumbled it while walking away, so I could only make out a few isolated words. Not enough to repeat here.

As I was walking out, another student approached me and said, "Don't worry, she does that with everybody." I didn't have the presence of mind to ask what exactly this person did with everybody. I assume the other student meant that this person had shouted at and/or slapped somebody else, although that doesn't make much sense. I would expect that tapping people on the shoulder is a common enough convention that if this person reacted like this every time then I would have heard about it by now, if only by being in the same room the last time it happened.

The weird part is, she seemed merely annoyed that I had touched her. It wasn't until I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't want to make noise," that she starting shouting and hitting me. Usually, people take offense before I apologize, not afterward. So I don't know what to make of this. In particular, I don't know if this is just a random fluke or if it's an individual quirk or if there is some group of people out there who reliably take great offense at some part of this interaction. Hopefully, in the last case, at least one member of that group reads AskMe?

In case it helps, this happened in New York, this person was middle-aged, some variety of "white," and spoke English fluently with one of the American accents.
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (77 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can't say what's normal in New York but around where I live it's rude to touch someone to get their attention unless you've already tried and failed to get their attention by talking to them. Still sounds like an overreaction on her part; you don't respond to rudeness with more rudeness and certainly not by hitting people.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:27 PM on June 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh, I doubt this is relevant but I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel now: she brought a large dog to class, which she left lying quietly by a chair in the corner. It might have been a service animal, although it didn't have the big rigid yoke I would expect of a seeing-eye dog.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:27 PM on June 19, 2013

If your telling is accurate, you ran into a nut job. A kindly touch on the shoulder doesn't warrant such an explosion.
posted by LonnieK at 8:28 PM on June 19, 2013 [32 favorites]


OK, so in another context - say, on the street - I'd be irritated at someone tapping me on the shoulder rather than saying "excuse me." But in environments where it would be impractical or rude to say "excuse me" - like in a class while the teacher is talking, or at a concert where it's really loud - it doesn't put me off at all. However, I'm not this lady, and people have VERY different standards re: being touched by strangers. Her preference - please don't touch me when there is any other alternative - is not crazy. Her response, however, is WAY out of proportion.

If I were you, I'd stay clear of this person and forget about it. Especially if classmates have seen this stuff happen before - these people are out there, and it's better to stay out of their way.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have an extreme preference for strangers not to touch me, especially without me expecting it. I think this is fairly common, though perhaps not as strongly felt. Had you tapped me on the shoulder, I would not have liked it.

However, her reaction was insane. She is a crazy person, and you did not violate a big enough taboo that her reaction was in any way reasonable.
posted by spaltavian at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2013 [23 favorites]

She's insane. An extreme outlier on the graph of normal human behavior. Especially in NYC where a dozen people a day shove you aside. Keep a wide berth of her in the future, but feel free to lightly tap others in the future.
posted by whoaali at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'm trying to figure out whether this sort of behavior was an individual quirk or if I've run afoul of some obscure but very strong taboo.

The former, by my own reading and also based on the testimony of the other student. People may startle if you touch them unexpectedly like that. Startled people are more likely to react egregiously. Some people don't even need exceptional circumstances to overreact. By your description, she sounds like she might fit in that category of persons.

Forget it, except to avoid her in the future. And going forward with other people, lead in with a quiet 'excuse me' before you go for the shoulder tap. Asking pardon excuses you from the noise and the need to get by.
posted by carsonb at 8:30 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's perfectly ok to not want to be touched, but it's not perfectly ok to respond to an innocuous touch with hitting and yelling - and I say this as someone with a wildly overactive startle reflex.

Given that 'she's like that with everybody' (wow, really?!) I'd just give her plenty of space and not another thought. How unpleasant.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:35 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Her reaction sounds very disproportionate to your action, but I would never touch someone/tap someone on the shoulder without saying/whispering/mouthing "excuse me" and I expect the same. However, I wouldn't have shouted at or hit you. The fact that she's seen by others to be a reactionary person for whatever reason makes it sound like she's one to avoid going forward though.
posted by sm1tten at 8:37 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a lifelong NYer I agree that hers was an unusual and abnormal reaction to being tapped on the shoulder.

Then again, as a lifelong NYer, I think the appropriate reaction to her reaction would be put your finger in her face and ask her if she wants to go to the fucking hospital.
posted by nicwolff at 8:37 PM on June 19, 2013 [26 favorites]

When you are in a group setting and someone does something crazy to you, and someone else says, "don't worry, she does that to everyone," chances are good that the second person is referring to the crazy thing that first person did, and that you shouldn't worry because she's just crazy and she does that to everyone, and that it's not anything you did.
posted by alms at 8:38 PM on June 19, 2013 [28 favorites]

I tap people on the shoulder as an adjunct to an "excuse me" when I'm in a crowd and/or the environment is noisy and an excuse me might not be heard. And in a big city like NYC you're gonna get touched by strangers and if you don't like it, you should live elsewhere or adjust your expectations.

You did nothing wrong, rude or offensive.
posted by brookeb at 8:41 PM on June 19, 2013

Yah, that's nuts, and she apparently isn't the greatest communicator if she doesn't have the courtesy to let you finish your explanation. Blow it off and stay away from her.
posted by random thoughts at 8:41 PM on June 19, 2013

Sounds like you tapped her right on the crazy. It doesn't sound like you did anything wrong here.
posted by pompelmo at 8:43 PM on June 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I too am a person who will flip a Pesci if a stranger touches me, but only if the touching is in some way creepy/offensive/grabby. The situation you describe does not appear to be either of those things, and I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this person did not have a rational reaction.
posted by elizardbits at 8:45 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't like being touched by strangers. That said, a tap on the shoulder is the most polite, inoffensive, and socially acceptable way to touch a stranger if you need to, and though it might irritate me, it wouldn't offend me. If she just snapped at you, that would be an understandable overreaction- but it would still be an overreaction. Her behaviour is far outside what is acceptable or normal in this situation. Avoid this person.
posted by windykites at 8:50 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the societal proscription for most white, urban Americans against touching a stranger is much stronger than the proscription against interrupting a teacher or making noise out of turn. In that sense, I would say you were mildly rude.

The lady's reaction is way disproportionate to your crime, though, and obviated any rudeness you showed her.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:54 PM on June 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

I think it's quite normal to not like being touched by strangers. It's also quite normal to have a bad day. Maybe this person was on the intersection of those things?
posted by pompomtom at 8:55 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find myself curious whether the class involved partnered dancing or any other style involving people touching each other. If so, her reaction truly was bizarre.
posted by zadcat at 9:05 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a very strong startle reaction, and tip towards the "fight" end of fight/flight very easily. So I have been known to react to a surprise tap on my shoulder with a slap at the tapping hand or arm or sometimes head of the person doing it. But the thing is, she didn't slap you until you'd exchanged some words - even if it was a delayed reaction to being startled, it's not okay for her to have done that. And it's not okay when I react with a slap, either. I cannot think of a group wherein reacting to a faux pas like you committed with a slap and yelling is ever acceptable. She owes you an apology, but you shouldn't expect one.
posted by Mizu at 9:14 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

As I was walking out, another student approached me and said, "Don't worry, she does that with everybody."

That answer is a lot more definitive than any we'd give you; someone who witnessed it made it clear that her response was inappropriate and that they have witnessed her being similarly inappropriate with other people. That's that.
posted by davejay at 9:15 PM on June 19, 2013 [13 favorites]

It's perfectly ok to not want to be touched, but it's not perfectly ok to respond to an innocuous touch with hitting and yelling - and I say this as someone with a wildly overactive startle reflex.

This is also me. I am pretty good at telling myself that just because I was startled does not mean that I have to have some sort of response AT the person who startled me except "Wow, you startled me". I agree with davejay, she's like that, other people know that, and now you know that too. I think the choices you made were decent and her response was disproportionate. Even people who don't like to be touched can usually deal with the fact that being in public means they may occasionally be touched and that people sometimes touch each other. I think you were fine.
posted by jessamyn at 9:19 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's clear that her reaction was insane. I think it is unacceptable to touch people you don't know to get their attention. Just flat out unacceptable. I mean seriously ... touching to get them to move? What about whispering "excuse me"?

I have a feeling that you escalated the situation with your excuse-making when she reacted negatively to your tapping on her shoulder.

I think her "hitting" you on the shoulder was trying to demonstrate that you DON'T GET TO TOUCH STRANGERS, nor do you get to decide what's an acceptable amount of touching. You don't know her, you didn't know what level of touch was acceptable to her, but you touched her anyway. Her "hitting" you was showing you that it's not your right to decide what's an okay degree of touch used on a stranger.
posted by Unified Theory at 9:31 PM on June 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think that's a terrible interpretation of what happened. I would not have touched her to ask her to move, nor do I think, OP, that you should do so in the future. But that's at worst a very minor rudeness. What she did to you was assault. Not a serious one, of course, but still assault. Had she done that to me there would have been serious words exchanged. Intent matters; you didn't intend rudeness even if I believe you committed a minor one. She intended much more than rudeness.

The other people telling you she does things like that a lot tells me she has serious issues.
posted by Justinian at 9:44 PM on June 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

touching to get them to move? What about whispering "excuse me"?

I'm not a NYer, BUT ... I'd much rather an arms' length tap than some stranger leaning in to whisper "excuse me" in my ear, which is about the only way a person could do it without disturbing the class.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:17 PM on June 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Native New Yorker here. I'm used to being in situations where someone in a crowd might accidentally jab me with an elbow, and that's fine. Someone touching me on purpose without my say-so is a little off-putting to me, though, even when it's an acquaintance. A whispered "excuse me" would be the best approach.
posted by mirepoix at 10:32 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I mean I don't think it's that disruptive to the class -- it's not like your phone is blowing up with some awful ringtone.
posted by mirepoix at 10:33 PM on June 19, 2013

I agree if she were a total stranger on the street with whom you have no other association, then tapping would be inappropriate, but in a situation where you do have some association and there are other people around, and you have a need to communicate with her by other means than your voice, it is not inappropriate if done lightly and briefly, and therefore she's a bit of a nut job.
posted by Dansaman at 10:58 PM on June 19, 2013

To address this specific part:

The weird part is, she seemed merely annoyed that I had touched her. It wasn't until I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't want to make noise," that she starting shouting and hitting me.

She took your apology as weakness. Once you apologised, she felt like she had the upper hand and could safely escalate the situation and 'get her own back' on you.

You probably shouldn't have touched her, but yeah... she's a psycho.
posted by Broseph at 10:59 PM on June 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

...or maybe she took your apology as excuse making and flew off the handle. I mean, often when women object to how they are treated they hear some nonpology like "sorry but c'mon, I was just trying to be nice!" In a tone that says "wow, overreacting much?" If you hear that often enough you start getting really suspicious of all apologies.
In AskMe people often get the advice to apologise without explaining their reasons because it can sound like excuses.

Still, people who are mentally in a good place would be able to tll the difference and don't overreact like that. So yeah, my vote is for "drama queen" or "nuts".
posted by Omnomnom at 11:46 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

FWIW it's my understanding that in Deaf culture tapping someone on the shoulder is considered particularly rude.
posted by plonkee at 11:49 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

i don't think it's a good idea to touch strangers, and i really wouldn't like it if someone did it to me without first saying something. so, i think it is best not to unless it was absolutely necessary like in an extremely noisy environment where they haven't been able to hear you trying to verbally get their attention or make eye contact. how you tapped her on the shoulder would matter too. it could be done really, really lightly which wouldn't be as bad but if you did it with any pointedness it would be especially rude. i'm going to assume you did it really lightly. i get it that she interrupted you when you tried to make your verbal excuse, but saying "i didn't want to make noise" sounds a little strange, bizarre even. the customary thing to say would have been: "i didn't want to interrupt your conversation". her reaction was a bit over-the-top but i think your actions were kinda strange and may have appeared a little creepy.

here is what you do when you want to get someone's attention:

first make eye contact, second say something if you need to, then only if absolutely necessary and the first two have failed do you extremely lightly tough someone.

here is how i would have done it:

first, stand next to them quietly waiting and try to politely make eye contact so they can see you want to say something to them. then, when they've acknowledged you or there is a pause in the conversation you'd say "excuse me" and probably glance over at your water bottle or motion in that direction and then when she moves you'd get it. or, say "excuse me i'd like to get my water bottle" and then you wait for her to move. when she moves you say "thank you".

/etiquette lesson
posted by wildflower at 12:03 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are the one at fault here. Were I to ask the other person, they would say that you slapped in the shoulder first, and as you admit to "tapping" them, it places you as the performer of this faux pas.

Where is it that touching a person is a substitute for a polite "excuse me"? Yes, I get that the teacher was talking, but in that case wither you make your request again, louder, without resorting to touching them, tapping the, or slapping their shoulders.

Next time don't go about gently tapping people in thew shoulder. There are places where that behavior will get you in legal trouble.
posted by kadmilos at 12:13 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are places where that behavior will get you in legal trouble.


Tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention is perfectly fine in loud areas where they wouldn't hear you otherwise, or areas where you need to be quiet, imo.
posted by empath at 1:40 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tapping a person on the shoulder is fine in these circumstances is always going to be fine unless you happen to have found somebody who is literally crazy. Tough luck, looks like you got one this time! Odds are against it being someone crazy again next time. Tapping people on the shoulder is pretty normal and you shouldn't tie yourself in knots to avoid it.

Everyone in this thread saying that they personally hate to be touched and you should have used smoke signals instead would probably not be in a social dance class anyway, so I think you can safely discount anything they say about what you should have done in this scenario.
posted by jacalata at 1:40 AM on June 20, 2013 [17 favorites]

We have only your word that you simply 'tapped' her shoulder.... we don't know how hard you were, nor do we know if you pressed on a sensitive area. You should have quietly said 'excuse me' --- not whisper in her ear, just quietly say it. (Alternatively, you could have just waited a couple extra seconds to see if she was going to move anyway.)

But whatever you could have done, purposely touching a stranger has to rank as the worst option. For myself, I probably wouldn't have, in your words, 'slapped' your shoulder (and again, we have only your version of how hard that was); but I would have freaked a bit. There's the stranger-touching-you and the was-she-abused? aspects; and as plonkee says it's rude in deaf culture, to say nothing of the general culture.

Basically, hands off strangers.
posted by easily confused at 1:49 AM on June 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

I have a ginormous bubble of personal space and deeply dislike being touched even by acquaintances, but I read the shoulder tapping as kind of on the rudeness spectrum but basically harmless, and read the person's response as, well, insane. You made a kind of semi-conscious spur of the moment decision that we all do - 'I need to get my water bottle, I don't want to interrupt the teacher, I'll tap this woman on the shoulder'. Sure, in retrospect a quiet 'excuse me' would have sufficed, but that sure as shit doesn't give this woman the right to slap you. A strange man once pulled my hair while I was walking down the street and I didn't react like that.

I'd also add that it's my understanding that there are certain times when it's okay to touch strangers, very quickly and lightly, on the shoulder or elbow, to get them to move. Still not great, but, yeah, sometimes it's okay and it's understandable.

So my read is: tapping someone on the shoulder is mildly rude and a very quiet 'pardon me' would do in future, but also that woman was nuts and totally out of line.
posted by nerdfish at 2:36 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, I'm kind of dismayed by the number of responses dismissing this woman as "crazy". She was minding her own business and a man she did not know came up behind her and touched her without warning or consent. It doesn't matter how innocent your intent was. That kind of behaviour can press serious buttons for any woman who has ever experienced sexual assault, domestic violence or harassment. Which is, sadly, a really large proportion of women. Like, most of us.

This is one of those situations where you have to recognise that women's experience of the world is different to men's. You see a shoulder tap as harmless and nonthreatening because every time you've experienced one, it has been. For women, particularly women who have been assaulted or harassed in the past, seemingly "harmless" nonconsensual touch can serve as a warning sign for other kinds of boundary violations. Sleazy men often start with "innocent" touches that can be laughed off or excused, then move on to more harmful behaviour later. So, unexpected touch can put us on edge and cause a fight or flight response - particularly when it's from a man we don't know. This reaction can be quick and almost unconscious - like a sudden surge of adrenalin before it's really clear whether the person presents a plausible threat to our safety.

It wasn't okay for her to hit you, but she was absolutely right that your behaviour was inappropriate. I'd be willing to bet the incident left her feeling very shaken. She lashed out because she was momentarily very, very afraid - not because she was "crazy".
posted by embrangled at 2:38 AM on June 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

No, you don't touch other people without permission unless you absolutely have to. Even first aiders are taught to use only one hand unless they must use both hands.

You also don't talk in class unless you absolutely have to. It sounds like you were right about that. If you absolutely could not manage without your water bottle at that moment and not a moment later, speaking would have been the best way to handle it.

Finally, if someone touches you to get your attention, you do not respond with the kind of deliberate violence that could get you brought up on charges nor do you disrupt the class by yelling.

Finally, if this woman has assaulted and yelled at people in the class before, the teacher should have banned her from the class. Maybe the answer is to find a new class where physical assault and yelling aren't allowed.
posted by tel3path at 3:23 AM on June 20, 2013

As embrangled implies, it is possible that she has some sort of anxiety disorder/PTSD (though IANACP). Her reaction is not normal, in my experience (though I don't touch people I don't know, as a rule), and I wouldn't go so far as to say that your behavior was "inappropriate" but it is something to keep in mind that some people have experiences that cause them to react to situations we would classify as benign in ways we would not expect. I'd say move on, and learn from the experience. It would cost you very little to modify your behavior to avoid these sorts of situations.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:26 AM on June 20, 2013

Tapping a person on the shoulder is fine in these circumstances is always going to be fine unless you happen to have found somebody who is literally crazy.

First of all, no. Embrangled has it absolutely right. You are always wrong when you touch a stranger without their consent. You are doubly wrong when you do it to a woman. Always. No exceptions. Because some people here say they might have been okay with it does not make it any less wrong. That is her body, not yours - you are not entitled to touch it just so that you don't make the social faux pas of talking during a class.

Which is I bet why your "apology" bothered her so much. You were essentially saying that your comfort and preference for not making noise and being seen to make noise, outweighed her comfort and physical safety. She may have been pleasantly enjoying the class, until your physical touch made it stressful and not-okay for her.

I wouldn't hit someone who tapped me on the shoulder and then said something like that. But in certain moods, I would absolutely have the impulse to do so. One hundred percent. This woman only differs in that she followed that impulse.

So you were asking: is there some subset for whom you have violated an enormous taboo? And the answer is yes. Yes, there is a subset of the population for whom you have violated an enormous taboo, and it would be good to take care not to violate it again.
posted by corb at 4:27 AM on June 20, 2013 [17 favorites]

I loathe being touched by anyone and have a strong startle reflex. But it sounds like this woman may have over-reacted. I can imagine, on a really terrible day, if some stranger touched me to get me to move as if I were a dog or a horse and then made a feeble excuse about it, I might shout at them. Hitting them back? Probably not. However, I don't have any trauma driving my responses, which this woman may or may not have.

So you were impolite to touch her, she was impolite for shouting, and very rude for hitting. I'd not worry about it, just don't touch strangers as a form of communication if you can avoid it in future.
posted by winna at 4:30 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think her reaction was very clearly over the top and inappropriate. It's also something I wish I had the nerve to do. Tapping on the shoulder is the most (only?) socially acceptable form of touching a stranger, and sometimes the only way to get someone's attention, but being touched kinda shorts me out.

Depending on the nature of your class, it may have also been a faux pas to move around while the teacher was talking. If the teacher allows quick water breaks at times like that, or if it was the standard end-of-class announcements while everyone's packing up their stuff, that's fine. But if the teacher is teaching and everyone else is paying attention, you're disrupting someone no matter how you get their attention. On the scale of impolite things, this is minor compared to her behavior, but next time wait a few minutes to get your water.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:33 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone in this thread saying that they personally hate to be touched and you should have used smoke signals instead would probably not be in a social dance class anyway, so I think you can safely discount anything they say about what you should have done in this scenario.

I was very active in a social dance scene for many years, and dancing together does not mean the rules of etiquette don't apply. I would have found it very off-putting had you done this to me. In fact, it's even worse that it happened in a class, because part of what makes social dancing appealing for many people is that it's a "safe" place to physically interact with people, and when lines are crossed, it tends to be taken very seriously.

Yours was a relatively minor transgression, and from your description of it, I agree her reaction was over the top. However, depending on how small your community is, you might want to apologize again anyway.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:54 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think people equating this with unacceptable/assaultive/abusive/line-crossing touch are way off. He tapped her on the shoulder, guys, get some perspective. In real life, people are going to touch you sometimes. Seriously. It was at worst a minor faux-pas, in my opinion.

That said, if nothing else I guess this thread demonstrates that there are people to whom it is never acceptable to tap a stranger on the shoulder, and this is a position you can be aware of moving forward. However, I think one thing we do mostly agree on is that her response was out of line, so don't beat yourself up. Don't even tap yourself on the shoulder.
posted by windykites at 5:15 AM on June 20, 2013 [23 favorites]

As embrangled implies, it is possible that she has some sort of anxiety disorder/PTSD (though IANACP).

I just wanted to clarify - certainly this is one possibility, but a fight or flight reaction to unexpected, nonconsensual touch is by no means limited to people with clinically diagnosed anxiety or PTSD. One in five women have experienced rape or attempted rape. One in four (from the same article) have experienced intimate partner violence. Eighty-seven per cent of American women aged 16-64 have been sexually harassed by a male stranger, with half of those reporting that they were touched, grabbed or rubbed.

I am not suggesting the OP's motives were anything but innocent, but unfortunately we live in a world where the majority of women have, at some point in their lives, had good reason to feel afraid when unexpectedly touched by a man. Responding defensively to nonconsensual touch is not irrational - it is an adaptive behaviour borne out of women's lived experience. The fight or flight reaction is a woman's adrenal system going, "Oh fuck, this again? Get ready, sister, this dude might mean you harm". While the strength of this response may vary from person to person, it is not in itself "crazy".

I'm not condoning the woman's reaction - if she hit the OP, that was wrong. (It sounds like she probably intended to give him an exaggerated version of the shoulder tap he gave her). But if the OP is going to make a habit of walking up behind strangers and touching them without warning, he needs to be aware that a great many women will find this upsetting. He can't possibly know which women they are, so the best course of action is to refrain from touching anyone without their consent.
posted by embrangled at 5:26 AM on June 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

You tapped her on the shoulder, OP - that's a pretty noninvasive touch. You didn't grab her around the waist or grope her. She overreacted here. Stay far away from her in the future.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 5:29 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

[Comment deleted; just answer the question, please. It's totally okay if different people give different answers; the OP can take his or her own reading. Definitely do not use Ask Metafilter to stage a sarcastic freak out.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:09 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Anecdata here, but I have seen a PTSD assistant dog (golden retriever) w/o bulky gear; he normally wore a leash and a little cloth sign thingy. Also anecdata, but I have seen someone who definitely fell on the Aspergers scale react in similar ways.
posted by Jacen at 6:24 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

a fight or flight reaction to unexpected, nonconsensual touch is by no means limited to people with clinically diagnosed anxiety or PTSD. One in five women have experienced rape or attempted rape.

Also... it's completely normal to just plain hate being touched. When you're out among other people, there's a collective assumption that each person has their own tiny circle of personal space. Unexpected intrusion into that space is startling, regardless of the genders involved. Some people are more startled, and some of those people lash back. PTSD or feeling threatened could certainly be part of it, but it's more likely that this woman just doesn't like being touched.

This still doesn't excuse this woman's overreaction, of course. "Don't touch people" goes both ways.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:25 AM on June 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I agree with those who have said it is all about intent - and yours was innocent while hers was not. Her behavior could be considered assault.

I dislike being touched by strangers(or even, for the most part, by people I know) but tapping on the shoulder in this kind of situation where you didn't want to interrupt the conversation doesn't even register as anything I would get angry about and I live in NY as well.

Inappropriate: I've been in restaurants where the waitstaff sometimes feels like they can put a hand on the shoulder or sometimes even rub people's shoulders :shudder: and that kind of lingering touch might warrant some words(but, you know, normal spoken words...shouting usually just makes the shouter look crazy) but this woman seems like the type with a short fuse who will go off about something most people wouldn't.

So I would listen to the person who said she does that to everyone and not worry about it, even though I'm sure it was jarring to get shouted at over something like that.

(that said, it is a bit weird to say "I didn't want to make noise" - next time I would just say "sorry, didn't want to interrupt")
posted by fromageball at 6:33 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

and as plonkee says it's rude in deaf culture

I'm not a signer, so I am not exactly the most authoritative source on the matter, but my understanding has always been that it's the other way around -- tapping on the shoulder (but not poking or anything weird and lingering) is actually a more common, ordinary, and acceptable way of getting someone's attention than it is in groups of hearing people.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:44 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without having been there, it is impossible for me to say if the tapping occurred in a technically socially acceptable condition (loud or otherwise appropriate condition).

That said, if the water bottle was important enough for you to get her attention by tapping her on the shoulder from behind, it was important enough for you to say "excuse me" first, regardless if the teacher was talking or not. It's a class, not a prison.

My wife is very startle prone, and I always call out and make a ton of noise if I come home and she's in the shower or similar.

Her reaction, however, was over the top. I have been significantly and unpleasantly startled by people on occasion, and I too lean towards the "fight" instinct in these scenarios. I might snap at you today as an adult, and in the past might punch a wall, but if this person feels so much unpleasantness at a stranger tapping her shoulder, she's a self righteous hypocrite to multiply the same contact.

I agree that you should just stay away from her.
posted by Debaser626 at 7:01 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know if any other people have brought this up, but the genders involved can make a difference in the dynamics of touch. A man getting into a woman's space can be seen as an aggressive move, depending on your and her individual stature, among other factors. I am a tall broad, so I am not easily put off or intimidated by men or women touching me, and I don't think much of tapping somebody on the shoulder if the situation warrants it (blocking the subway door, dropped a wallet). However, in this thread, I for one have learned valuable insight into how some people react to unexpected touch, however innocuous.

Her reaction was so far beyond the pale that I wouldn't even want to be in the same class with somebody like that, no matter how normal she comes off the rest of the time.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:07 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't tap people on the shoulders unless necessary. Especially her shoulders. Jeez.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:09 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I didn't want to make noise" is not really an excuse, and it would frustrate the hell out of me if given as an explanation for a stranger touching me. Even if the teacher was talking, clearly people (including you) were turned away from her, getting water, etc. right? It is generally socially acceptable in these situations to make a moderate amount of noise, including politely saying, "Excuse me" to someone who you'd like to get past. Even if it was in the middle of a lecture where people were supposed to pay attention, making a moderate amount of noise is generally acceptable.

Her reaction seems like it was on the extreme end of the scale, but it does not sound "crazy" to me. It sounds angry and frustrated. You, of course, also have a right to not be touched, and she violated your boundaries as well, so you may want to consider how you'd like to deal with that.
posted by muddgirl at 7:11 AM on June 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Either way, escalating a situation physically is inappropriate period. Responding to an unwanted touch by aggressively touching back is not any more OK than responding to an aggressive touch by decking the person on the chin.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:19 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I should emphasize, OP, that all you did was make a faux pas. You are not a criminal.

Unlike, possibly, the woman who reacted so strongly.
posted by tel3path at 7:20 AM on June 20, 2013

I would definitely be freaked out if a man tapped me on the shoulder who wasn’t my husband or brother, so yeah, you did do something wrong here, but the woman overreacted and assaulted you. Maybe she’s not in the wrong, depending on if she actually has PTSD or an anxiety related illness, but just steer clear of her from now on.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:36 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Even if you did commit a faux pas, this woman's reaction was so far beyond what is acceptable. Personally, I never tap anyone on the shoulder unless I've made multiple attempts to get their attention without touching them. However, even if what you did was rude, her reaction is far worse.

As an anecdote, I was once in a restroom in NYC and must have accidentally knocked into an older woman with my purse on my arm (which was not large or full of heavy things). "You hit me!" she said. I apologized. "That hurt!" she said. I apologized profusely, it was an accident. She then proceeded to start screaming and hitting me with her purse, and then ran out of the restroom.

I was stunned and felt pretty terrible about knocking into her with my purse--I didn't want to upset anyone or hurt anyone--and her reaction made me feel like I had done something awful, because she was acting like I had done something awful, and I was in the process of apologizing when she hit me. The woman who hit me with her purse, like the woman in your class, escalated the situation like only a batshit crazy person can.

Maybe she’s not in the wrong, depending on if she actually has PTSD or an anxiety related illness, but just steer clear of her from now on

I disagree with this. If she has anxiety or PTSD, that might be an explanation for her behavior, but it is certainly not an excuse, and does not make hitting people okay.
posted by inertia at 7:47 AM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Recently, a friend of mine patted me on the back, not particularly roughly. I winced and felt the sting for several moments, because (unbeknownst to her) I have fibromyalgia and what is a gentle pat to other people feels to me like a slam into the sharp corner of a piece of furniture. I didn't say anything to my friend because I didn't want to make her feel bad, but I have certainly imagined providing an immediate "how do YOU like it" example to strangers. It's really hard to ascribe benign intentions to someone you don't know in the middle of experiencing the sharp pain they caused.

It's like, if I did something to cause you to stub your toe, hard, your first thought would probably not be, "Oh, I'm sure camyram didn't mean to drop that cinderblock in front of me as I was walking down a dark path!"

I would not have touched you back if you had tapped me on the shoulder, it's true, but on certain days I would have wanted to, and my pain is not as severe as some.

Unless you make up someday and become BFFs with this woman you'll probably never know exactly what was up with her reaction. Until then, keep your distance from this person, and please don't touch people without permission.
posted by camyram at 7:50 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Would you have touched a larger man the same way?
posted by 99percentfake at 9:11 AM on June 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

As I am continuously learning, what is polite versus rude is a pretty wide spectrum that depends on region, family, individual preferences, etc. As much as we would like to believe that there is a set of hard coded rules that apply to everyone everywhere, that is just not the case.

Look, you did something that was non-abusive and in good faith, and you did so while trying to be polite to others. In this case, you accidentally offended someone in the process. However, you apologized and won't do it again. You even came to AskMefi to get further information on how to be even more polite in the future, which shows how wonderfully empathetic you are.

You did well, you handled that situation with kindness and good faith. Be kind to yourself.
posted by Shouraku at 9:45 AM on June 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Another vote for don't touch strangers. No one has the right to touch me without my consent and i find it presumptuous, invasive and rude if anyone does so. Oh and I also sometimes take dance classes so jacalata's answer makes no sense. If the instructor is talking to the class then listen to the instructor and get your water bottle after the instructor finishes. If you can't wait for some reason then whisper "excuse me" to get the person's attention. Your classmate's reaction was over the top but still, no touching.
posted by hazyjane at 9:52 AM on June 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would say that in the future, an apology for a minor faux pas should be short and sweet. "I'm so sorry," grab your water bottle, and walk away. The other person doesn't need an excuse, they generally just want a recognition of what transpired.
posted by muddgirl at 9:53 AM on June 20, 2013

If physically getting someone's attention was required because I wanted to be quiet or indicate that the person had to move, I would have lightly placed my palm on side of the person's shoulder rather than "tapping." I think that "tapping on the shoulder", as you may have seen depicted on TV or film, is not a "thing" anymore.

Her reaction, however, was totally out of line. People may have eccentricities or hangups or disabilities that make these sort of day-to-day interactions very uncomfortable for them, but it is their responsibility to control how they react.

Combined with the large dog she brings around to places where bringing around a pet is not appropriate, she may be one of those eccentric middle aged people who tend to come to dance activities and classes as their only outlet for social interaction, and she might have issues navigating social waters when she encounters things that make her uncomfortable.
posted by deanc at 10:01 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Whoops, I have to revise my answer here a bit: I assumed that both people involved here were women. Now that I know the poster is a man (from reading a comment that referenced it) here's my revision, an addendum really: "However, since you're a man, you should have waited or asked permission instead."

There's absolutely a double standard in play here, but best to accept it rather than fight it.
posted by davejay at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2013

My cultural and social background says you simply do not touch people unnecessarily. You keep your hands off another person's body unless you know they want them there, or unless the touch is part of a common and socially acceptable ritual such as the handshake.

That said, I'd say she over-reacted.
posted by Decani at 11:40 AM on June 20, 2013

I don't really like being touched and I'll go to comical extremes to avoid tapping people on the shoulder. Some people, as we can see, really really really don't like being touched. That said, gauging by most common norms, it wasn't wrong, she overreacted in an eccentric way, but you haven't really been victimized and she probably isn't evil either. Sometimes interactions are weird. Also, most of this thread is a baggage claim area and should be read accordingly.
posted by furiousthought at 12:27 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. A lot of these answers surprise me. Is this another North American thing, like the Ask about nipples showing through perfectly decent clothing?

I'm female, I don't like being touched (nephews and nieces know to ambush me for embraces) and I'm very sensitive to personal space, as I'm short. In a group of people, I will establish and maintain personal space about me. But when people are moving where space is tight, only an obvious and blatant grope would upset me. How can you expect not to touch and be touched in a group of people where space is limited? I see a tap on the shoulder in this circumstance as a politeness to avoid more of a full-body smooshing together.

And, as a short person, I will gently move or nudge large person-shaped obstacles in order to get through a crowd. Y'know, tall people standing about with their shoulders just hanging there and their backs all up in other people's faces.

So, OP, it seems lots of people are sensitive to a tap on the shoulder in a way that might just be culturally specific.
posted by glasseyes at 1:20 PM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Is this another North American thing

No, it's a "people who answer questions on the internet" thing. People on Metafilter in general are probably more likely to be sensitive to personal space issues than the general populace. And more importantly, people sensitive to personal space issues are far more likely to respond to the question, I think, than people who don't mind being tapped on the shoulder. It's a self-selecting sample.
posted by Justinian at 2:22 PM on June 20, 2013 [10 favorites]

Context is very important in these situations. As someone who is pretty decidedly "don't touch me" - of course there are situations I can imagine where I'm OK with strangers touching me. I don't think we need to descend into hypotheticals. The woman in dance class made her boundaries clear, then arguably over-reacted when her boundaries were not met with "I'm sorry, it will never happen again." It's the kind of interaction that happens every day in the city. Probably, both the OP and the other person did wrong.
posted by muddgirl at 2:31 PM on June 20, 2013

Wow. A lot of these answers surprise me. Is this another North American thing

IMHO it's a MetaFilter thing, not a North American thing. To me - and I would say everyone I know IRL - a person participating in a dance class*, which is already a crowded, sweaty room full of people, can't expect not to be touched. Also a person living in a densely populated, busy city can't expect to never be touched. Groping or touching someone's waist or leg is another thing, of course, but a brief touch on the shoulder is not out of the realm of normal in a situation like this.

I'm surprised that more people haven't had the experience where in any large-ish group, there's going to be a "crazy person." That is, a person who probably needs some help, who hasn't learned how to behave - or isn't capable of behaving - as most people have been socialized to do. She's the "crazy person" in this class, as the witness to the OP's incident pointed out in so many words.

If she'd lashed out out of surprise/fear upon being touched, I think that would be different. Not the OP's fault, but obviously some people are easily startled for various reasons and that's understandable. (Though if that surprise/fear causes them to hit people, maybe dance class is a place to avoid while they work on that.)

*and especially, guessing based on the OP's previous questions, social dancing and not ballet barre or something.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:07 PM on June 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

and as plonkee says it's rude in deaf culture

Yeah, this is pretty much 100% backward. Particularly within the deafblind community/culture. Shoulder taps are a common way of getting attention, saying hello, you name it. Get into the world of tactile sign and it becomes even more common.
posted by stenseng at 4:24 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I get the answers here, particularly by women, about not liking to be touched in public spaces by strangers. And yet...

As a woman, and a New Yorker, if you had tapped me on the shoulder, I would have just turned around and seen what you wanted. If probably would have said the part about asking you to just say something rather than tap me, but once you apologized, that would have de-escalated and ended it for me. So everything about her response after your 'I'm sorry....', seems waaay over the top to me, and not anywhere near appropriate. Regardless of her past history (sexual assault or no), current mental state, etc., once she said 'Well that's how I communicate, etc....' and started with the hitting, it became clear that you were getting into her personal communication style, not necessarily a cultural norm, unless the norm after someone sincerely apologizes is to escalate aggressive behavior.

In my book, her response was uncalled for and inappropriate, and if I was the instructor and saw a participant slapping/yelling at another participant, slappy/yelly and I would have a side talk about it, because that's not how we handle conflict in my class.
posted by It's a Parasox at 11:25 AM on June 21, 2013

Thank you, everyone, for the answers. It sounds like I should stop tapping strangers on the shoulder but also not worry about getting slapped for it either.

tel3path, I'm an EMT in New Jersey and I used to be a first responder (EMR) in Chicago. In neither of those places did local protocol say anything about using one hand. Nor would it make any sense to have such a protocol. As far as the law is concerned, battery is just as easy to commit with one hand as two. And assault can be committed without any physical contact at all.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:05 PM on June 21, 2013

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