Getting a person at my office to leave me alone.
August 24, 2017 6:05 AM   Subscribe

For the past two months I've worked a contract position for a well-regarded, mid-sized company in my field. This feels like a big break for me, and for the most part I've acclimated well to the job and to my coworkers. Unfortunately, one very weird woman at my company is making me uncomfortable.

About a week into my job, I was in the main ladies' room. While I was washing my hands, I felt a hand come up behind me and pull the bottom of my skirt out of my waistband. (I could feel her knuckles against the backs of my thighs.) I have high boundaries about physical contact, and this felt invasive. I was too alarmed to say anything to her, however, and she made excuses for her behavior ("I figured you didn't want to go around looking like that", "Someone did that to me in a ladies' room and I was thankful," etc). The next day she introduced herself to me, and I was neutral-to-discouraging of any kind of friendship or contact.

Unfortunately, she didn't get the message. She's been friendly to me in a very performative way, loudly greeting me and saying goodbye in the evening (my desk is close to the exit); I have not answered her and pretended to be absorbed in my work. I've hoped that she'd get the message from my silence, but at times she's doubled down on the sweet, friendly-seeming conversation, and I have responded in kind by not making eye contact and answering her in single words.

I haven't told my boss or any of my coworkers because I don't want to seem dramatic or like a problem employee, and I haven't said anything to her because (a) I don't want to have a confrontation and (b) she seems to have a fragile enough ego to make any attempts at setting boundaries about her instead of just leaving me alone. I've thought about going to her supervisor, but that seems like I would be going over my boss's head.

We're not in the same department and we have no reason to have any contact, but she seems well-liked around the office and I don't want to start anything with her. I just want to be left alone. How should I handle this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (62 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I agree that the skirt-fixing incident was waaaaaay over the line, but now she's "loudly greeting [you] and saying goodbye in the evening" and this is making you uncomfortable? Personally I think she's just trying to be polite and since you're in a contract position, and she's well-liked around the office, it might not hurt you to suck it up and say hello/goodbye to her once in a while. Or just look up and smile when she greets you. Please don't go to her supervisor about this, that would be totally uncalled for.
posted by jabes at 6:13 AM on August 24, 2017 [57 favorites]

Is it possible that she is overdoing the performative aspect of her friendliness is her trying extra hard because you haven't responded thus far? Like she is trying to "get through" to you? Maybe if you were a bit friendlier back it would let her ease up once she feels like she has reached an appropriate level of connection.

Of course, that may backfire, as her desired connection level might be significantly higher than what you feel comfortable with, but if you are already thinking about talking to management about her, it might be worth a try. If it does end up encouraging her, then you can go to your boss (not hers) and see if they have any insight.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:22 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with jabes. I completely understand why the skirt thing was over the line, but you haven't described what about her current behavior is inappropriate or overbearing. If this is a big break for you, I would consider coming up with a set of responses that make you seem less disengaged than you are trying to communicate that you are. Right now it sounds like a few minutes a day that you are having to interact in a way that you don't like. That isn't much.

(Keep in mind that my comments are based on what you have written here. If there is more going on that you have not described, that might change what my advice would be.)
posted by OmieWise at 6:26 AM on August 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Is she by any chance older than you? Sometimes women who are older take on a very maternal (aka nosy) manner with younger women in the office - I personally hate it and think it's condescending, but it's definitely a thing.

Fixing your skirt, as opposed to just pointing it out so you could fix it yourself, was inappropriate, but that combined with the way she seems to be taking it upon herself to constantly make small talk with you suggests to me she may see herself as some kind of matriarch of the office, regardless of her age. Unfortunately, if she's been playing this role for years it's probably going to be hard to make it stop. I'd stick to polite but not effusive greetings - "Good morning", "See you later" - and try to excuse yourself from further conversation as much as possible by saying you've got to get back to your work.

I know it's uncomfortable to make eye contact with people you're uneasy around, but if you can manage to make eye contact with her while doing this I think it will help. Ironically, avoiding eye contact might be encouraging her to pursue contact with you more aggressively; she might be trying to bring you "out of your shell", or whatever.

Believe me, I'm totally sympathetic - I hate this kind of stuff at work and also want to be left alone. But I think this is a situation where gritting your teeth and playing along to a minor degree is going to get you closer to the result you want. If her behavior changes or escalates, then of course that's a different story. But cross that bridge when you come to it.
posted by superfluousm at 6:27 AM on August 24, 2017 [31 favorites]

It might even be that she's embarrassed about what she did (who knows, maybe she thought you were someone else, or she was just startled by your response), she wants to pretend it never happened, and she's overcompensating as a result.

Ignoring her is neither professional nor getting you the result you want. Be polite and respond to her greetings. Keep your guard up, by all means, and if she does any other weird boundary-crossing things go ahead and do something about it. But you can probably afford to respond to her hellos and goodbyes.
posted by mskyle at 6:30 AM on August 24, 2017 [42 favorites]

Yeah, if you can, be friendlier in a few specific ways. She isn't getting the message and may not understand that some people prefer not to engage. Maybe she assumes anything under a certain level of friendliness is dysfunctional or a cry for help from a socially awkward person. Maybe she doesn't take hints.

When she passes, smile, say hi as loudly as feels comfortable, give 5-10 seconds of bright conversation. Do it consistently. If you initiate, you own the conversation in a sense. Then say "Well, nice talking to you! Back to work!" and turn away. If she keeps engaging, repeat the 5-10 seconds of reciprocity, and then disengage again. You can even find a task you have to walk away for. Make it a norm. Give her the friendliness on a superficial level and you may find it doesn't go farther. You are scratching her itch in a sense; and it gains you some space and peace.

You don't have to do any of this if you don't want to.
posted by ramenopres at 6:30 AM on August 24, 2017

The skirt-fixing incident would be considered within the range of normal for most women I know. That doesn't mean that you're wrong to be uncomfortable, but it's also just part of regular human primate behaviour - tucking a tag in the back of your shirt, reaching out to remove a bit of fuzz from your hair. Not OK to do to a stranger on the bus, but acceptable with a colleague at work. I don't especially like it and don't do it myself - I just say "your tag's out" or whatever- but I recognise that I'm in the minority and it doesn't bother me enough to say anything if someone does it to me.

It seems like it does really bother you, though, and if so you should maybe think about responses when things like that ahead of time for when it inevitably happens. "You startled me, sorry, if my clothes are mussed again if you just let me know I can fix it". That gets the point across that you're not to be touched, it would probably embarrass the person you say it to a bit, but that's fine. It's not your job to make sure that everyone else gets through life without embarrassment.

In this case, since you never said anything, she probably would never connect your lack of response to her friendliness to the skirt incident, and at this point it may be too weird to take her aside and explain. Just continue to offer the level of friendliness you're comfortable with - but realise ignoring her when she says goodbye and studiously avoiding eye contact is reflecting more badly on you than it is on her. A breezy "yes, bye!" with a neutral yet pleasant expression should head her off, and if she tries to have more conversation, just smile and say you've got work to get back to.

Going to anyone else to report her for the situation as described will reflect badly on you, not her, as unfair as that may seem.
posted by cilantro at 6:38 AM on August 24, 2017 [22 favorites]

She was completely in the wrong in the bathroom, but you're in the wrong in trying to snub her so hard. She is doing one of two things--trying to be friendly to make up for your awkward first contact (maybe she thinks it's too weird to ask for forgiveness for something so strange?), or "killing you with kindness" because she thinks you're standoffish.

My guess is the first one, and all you have to do is treat her like any random person you'd met as though the first encounter never happened. If she ever touches you again you can be prepared to say "sorry, I really don't like being touched," but other than that, she's trying to be nice. Maybe she even thinks you're shy. Just smile and nod and make quick eye contact; you don't have to be her friend.

If it's the second one--if she's on overbearing jerk who's decided that you're standoffish and wants to "win" by being friendly, the way to "win" is to be equally friendly.

Either way, be the perfect embodiment of neutral, anonymous pleasantness. Sound cheerful when you talk to her. Say nothing personal ever. Always greet her with a smile. You will then have an appropriate professional relationship that is either full of perfectly hidden seething rage (which it sounds like you have on the inside anyway) or a pleasantly neutral coworker relationship. Either way, this is the best move.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:40 AM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

If she's well-liked around the office, that probably means people will not think well of you for ostentatiously snubbing her. You're entitled to your feelings, but if you want to be liked yourself I'd suggest sucking it up and being nice to her, as others have said.
posted by languagehat at 6:42 AM on August 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

She's trying to be nice. Her cultural version of nice involves reaching out rather than just leaving someone alone. In her view, just leaving people alone is how they end up slowly sinking until they are so sad and alone that they don't feel any reason to keep trying. As far as she knows, you're in terrible personal pain, or too intimidated to make friends, so she's being available for you and letting you know that you're really not alone.

I know you feel impinged upon. I would find this situation hard, too, not least because the work part takes up a lot of attention and energy, and managing a new kind of person is equally taxing. However, she's someone who (imperfectly, since who's perfect?) is trying to do her part as a human who cares about other humans; please don't damage her! People like her are important.

If you have the ability, please take the time to explain, genuinely and sincerely, that you personally are the kind of person who is more comfortable with more space, including quiet so you can concentrate at the beginning and end of the days. Let her know that you see that she is a genuinely thoughtful person (or whatever you do perceive, but be genuine; she's probably more intelligent than she seems to you). A genuine explanation with detail -- you don't have to be overly vulnerable or lengthy -- could well get you the result you want.

(I come from a place where the skirt fixing would not be that out of line, although I'd never do it myself.)
posted by amtho at 6:43 AM on August 24, 2017 [15 favorites]

I have high boundaries about physical contact, and this felt invasive.

This is also me. While I don't mind contact that I initiate, people who touch me and startle/surprise me make me feel instantly unsafe. This is partly about me (anxiety, startle reflex) so I try to find normative ways to manage. So, I think that woman treaded a bit over a line the way she touched you--it's polite to not touch people without asking--but not WAY over a line for most people even though it was WAY over a line for you. So it's fine that it made you feel bad, but that's different than this woman actively doing something knowingly negative TO you, if that makes sense. It was a bad fit social interaction.

she wants to pretend it never happened, and she's overcompensating as a result.

I also think this is true. To me, based on what you've said, she's trying to ascertain through standard social stuff that things are "okay" with the two of you, or just with you. And this is tricky because 1. yes they are, you are fine 2. no they are not, you do not wish to continue a relationship with this person and you feel bad/weird about what happened.

And this is the core of the issue. You can't make someone leave you alone, and within a business context, that's not really normative. You can change your reactions, you can change your situation so you don't encounter this person constantly. You can minimize contact but probably the most effective way to do this is to actually increase your contact with her from more than one-word answers and no eye contact, to one few-sentence interaction per day and maybe look into moving your desk. Actively maintaining a negative non-normative social stance with this woman is not going to achieve the result you want, but counterintuitively being slightly more positive with her might make the interactions die down somewhat which is more along the path to your goal.
posted by jessamyn at 6:44 AM on August 24, 2017 [14 favorites]

I'm sorry, but basic friendly hellos and goodbyes are part of being in an office with other people. Whether or not she crossed a line with the skirt is something I can't speak to as a guy, but I think you're taking a big risk on contract not putting in the basic pleasantries with any coworker who is engaging you. People are not only extended or made permanent for their performance but also their fit - i.e., willingness to wish people a good night on their way out the door.
posted by notorious medium at 6:47 AM on August 24, 2017 [30 favorites]

I'm an older woman, matriarchal type, overly friendly sometimes, and had to learn to not be touchy-feely- handsy in my career. I say all that to point out that even -I- would not have touched you in that manner, even at my most clueless. That's just weird.

Since your coworker is well-liked, I think she totally gets that she stepped over the line, picking up on your signals. I also think she's going overboard because she wants to make amends. She knows she screwed that up, and now she's trying much too hard to show you she's not weird. And is being weird.

If you can figure out a way to meet her halfway and signal that you are ok now, I bet she backs off. I hate that it's on you to do it, but I think this is what you will need to do to advance your career. You will need to deal with unpleasant people forever, so maybe you could try some strategies to find what's comfortable for you. In my opinion, successful people are able to compartmentalize their emotions somewhat at work to maintain a professional demeanor while still being courteous and friendly. Snubbing this woman is not the look you need to go for.
posted by raisingsand at 6:49 AM on August 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

It's completely reasonable for you to have been upset/disconcerted by the skirt thing - in my view that was completely unacceptable - but it sounds like too much time has passed for that to be a thing you can bring up, unless there is a future similar incident. (In which case by all means, it is fine to say "please don't touch me" or "I don't like to be touched.")

Which leaves the overly-demonstrative/loud/performative friendliness. I would hate that too, but it's not something you should go to either your boss or hers about; it sounds like it's within the realms of most office norms. Trying to run it up the supervisory chain is likely going to backfire and make *you* seem like the problem employee who can't get along with others in the group. This seems like something you need to sort out on your own.

The way you're handling it now isn't getting you the results you want, so it's time to try something different. I think I would try easing up slightly on the freezing-her-out; it seems like it might be making her redouble her efforts. I would greet her when she greets you first, and respond to questions more than one-word answers, but keep your answers as bland and boring as possible so you're not giving her toeholds to keep the conversation going. Your weekend was "fine", that webinar was "useful", yes the office lunch was "nice", bland bland bland, vague vague vague, neutral and pleasant but not giving any openings for personal talk. She will likely get bored and lose some of her interest in whatever it is she's trying to do, once you're no longer a challenge or problem to be fixed.
posted by Stacey at 6:57 AM on August 24, 2017

Wait, you're just flat-out ignoring her every day? She might see that as almost hilariously rude. I've been known to double down on the friendly greetings in her position, because really.

That said I would have found the skirt thing weird too and could see how you might not want to be friendly with her after that. However, that really is potentially a cultural thing (which includes subcultures involving age and region and so forth) and is worth giving her the benefit of the doubt. To just cut a person like that, in an office setting, seems out of proportion and not really professional. Treat her at minimum politely, like you would if the bathroom thing had never happened, and assess her on the basis of her future behavior.
posted by trig at 7:03 AM on August 24, 2017 [26 favorites]

The skirt incident was absolutely inappropriate, but her behavior now isn't weird in any way.

She's been friendly to me in a very performative way, loudly greeting me and saying goodbye in the evening (my desk is close to the exit)

Saying hello and goodbye to a coworker, even a coworker one doesn't know well, is absolutely not strange in any way. She was wrong in the bathroom, but now you are wrong in all of your interactions with her. Be an adult and say "hello" and "bye" to her, for crying out loud.

It kind of seems like you're at the bitch eating crackers stage, where literally everything this lady does rubs you wrong. And hey, you're only human! But part of being a professional is to mask these feelings in the workplace.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:07 AM on August 24, 2017 [20 favorites]

> The skirt-fixing incident would be considered within the range of normal for most women I know. That doesn't mean that you're wrong to be uncomfortable, but it's also just part of regular human primate behaviour - tucking a tag in the back of your shirt, reaching out to remove a bit of fuzz from your hair. Not OK to do to a stranger on the bus, but acceptable with a colleague at work

Ha, I have totally fixed the tags of strangers on the bus (though I usually start with a verbal alert or hand-signal with strangers.) Seconding that the skirt-fixing is completely normal behavior for a lot of women, as odd as this may seem to you. *Especially* in a women's restroom, which is regarded as a more intimate "we ladies are all in this together amirite" space.

she made excuses for her behavior ("I figured you didn't want to go around looking like that", "Someone did that to me in a ladies' room and I was thankful," etc).

I'm not suggesting that your feelings of discomfort with this incident are incorrect or unreasonable, people have different thresholds for personal contact and yours are ALSO within what I would consider "normal." But I don't think it's fair (or useful for your ongoing interactions with your coworkers) to consider her explanations to be "making excuses." It's not as if she was dying to brush her knuckles against the backs of your thighs and made up an opportunity. Please try to take her explanations at face value, let it go, and respond to her "sweet, friendly-seeming conversation" with some polite hellos.
posted by desuetude at 7:13 AM on August 24, 2017 [26 favorites]

Yeah, the performative niceness is within the range of "nice older lady with an established position in an office who wants to be friendly" behavior in the US, especially if she feels that she might have offended you.

The skirt thing is a little weirder, but still well within certain generational and cultural norms. Just as you have high boundaries, other people have low boundaries. In my experience, older, maternal, white or Jewish women tend to have the lowest boundaries, particularly in settings where it's women-only, like a bathroom.

tl;dr: people are different, you're gonna sound pretty weird to HR, especially if she is generally well-liked, practicing smiling and waving to coworkers even if you don't like them is part of professionalism
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

The skirt thing is weird. But if you keep ignoring her that will raise questions amongst your colleagues as to why.

Just say hello back in a polite tone. You can maintain boundaries with her but flat-out not speaking to someone is the kind of thing management may view as "can't get along with others" and could hurt you.
posted by bunderful at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are in a contact position, I would strongly suggest that you greet her when she greets you, and do it politely. I too have had a long-term temp job that was a contact position, and people really noticed how I acted - in fact, on the very first day, one of the partners wanted to get rid of me because I had not greeted him appropriately (first thing on the first morning of my first day!) but was persuaded not to because someone pointed out that this was a weird expectation. People will notice if you are not friendly, and it can bite you.

The skirt thing is really subcultural. I would never do it to someone but I've had similar things done to me. It freaks me out and upsets me too, so I totally feel you on this, but I genuinely don't think it's someone doing something that everyone recognizes as inappropriate and therefore being a boundary-crossing oddball. Many, many women grow up in situations where it really is a normal gesture of womanly solidarity to fix stuff like that for someone. Many other women grow up in a "don't touch strangers, that's super rude and makes them anxious" situation or in a "you touch people as a way of asserting power and status" situation, and when they meet, it's not that great.

I hate to suggest to people "process it and let it go", but I feel like that is what is best for your employment future at this company, even though I do really share the "now I feel freaked out and gross because a stranger poked at me" feeling.
posted by Frowner at 7:19 AM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

FWIW, some of the work cultures I have been in, it would have been dead normal for someone to help fix your skirt in that way. It would have freaked me out completely, because I don't like to be touched by strangers but I would need to know more about the people to know if it really deviates from the norm. As you describe it here it reads as busybody and not creeper. But I wasn't there, and you're the only one who can answer whether this would be something that triggered you regardless of the intent or whether you are reacting because you were picking upon something worse.

In any case, I would suggest that you think about it before you go to a supervisor. Again, maybe there's something you aren't mentioning here but an employee who came to me to complain that another employee was saying hello to them too loudly would strike me as very strange indeed. I'm not sure it would bring you the results you want.

As said here already, I think that if you just do a minimum of response to her then she will back off on her own. I have to confess, when someone at work is obviously rude to me when I say hello to them I tend to become performative in saying hello as often as possible. It's childish, but a human instinct.
posted by frumiousb at 7:24 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone else, and also, you're near the exit. It doesn't sound like she's seeking you out--she's walking by you on her way out. A lot of people would think it was rude if she didn't say anything. She may think you're intensely shy or awkward and trying to help you out, or she may think you're enormously rude and being passive aggressively overly friendly. Either way, it's best for you to be minimally polite to her from now on.
posted by Mavri at 7:30 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
After I wrote this post but before the mods posted it, Handsy escalated.

I had gotten up to refill my water glass and came back to my desk to find Handsy in tears, standing next to my chair. She wanted to know if I had a "problem" with her, and I said that I didn't have a problem with anyone. Her body language got more invasive--she stood over and pointed her finger at me--and said that she had seen how I acted with other employees and that I had been "different" with her, and again asked if I had a problem with her. I told her I didn't, and she said "You are lying to me and you are lying to yourself." She then left for the day.

Because this struck me as inappropriately personal, I brought her statements to the attention of her boss. I told her boss about everything leading up to this conversation. She said that Handsy frequently fixed other people's clothes, but agreed that she crossed a line by reaching up my skirt. She said she would speak with Handsy about her behavior.

As far as the office culture here is concerned, people at this office--especially in my department--are fairly quiet and keep to themselves unless there's a problem. (This extends to after-work activities--people don't go out for drinks after work or anything.) I've noticed that Handsy doesn't have any contact with other members of my team; when she interacts with me, she's generally louder and more effusive in a way that strikes me as performative and insincere. If she were just greeting me at the same volume and with the same enthusiasm as she greeted other members of the staff, I'd let this slide, but when I get a loud, friendly greeting where others in the office get a quieter, more polite hello, I start to feel uncomfortable.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:37 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just a data point that the skirt thing probably wouldn't have crossed my personal boundaries. Of course I don't at all judge you for feeling uncomfortable about it- boundaries are personal and variable- but I just wanted to say that I don't think what she did was necessarily a sign that she has terrible inappropriate creeper motives. For instance if she's into yoga, dance, bodywork, or certain sports, her touch boundaries may just be lower than average.

As for the greetings, is it possible she picked up on your discomfort about the skirt, and is now being extra friendly by way of indirect apology?

At any rate, I think you can continue to dislike her privately, but for the sake of professionalism, you should probably perform more politeness than you currently are.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2017

asked if I had a problem with her. I told her I didn't, and she said "You are lying to me and you are lying to yourself."

This is, again, awkward, because you did lie to her by saying you didn't have a problem with her. Then again, that is normal lying nand you should never have been put in that position. I totally would have done the same thing. She's now clearly (in my world, which may be different from others') exhibited behavior which sends strong "this person is fixating on you" behavior and recontextualizes past behavior as possible more worrisome. I've seen this sometimes with my friends who are WoC when someone in their office is trying really hard to seem non-racist and just winds up being awful due to overcompensation. You were right to speak with your boss. You are totally okay referring her to your boss if she wants to continue to talk about your relationship with her. I am sorry you are dealing with that.
posted by jessamyn at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

Am I right in thinking she put her hand UP YOUR SKIRT in order to yank it out of the waistband? Holy crap, if that's true and I felt someone do that to me from behind, she would be lucky my startle reflex didn't throw her through a wall. If I'm interpreting the action correctly, it is so inappropriate it's not funny and if it were a man, you'd be getting completely different responses. And no, being an older woman doesn't give her a pass to making it ok to shove her hand up your skirt.

I don't blame you at all for freezing her out, especially if this was your first interaction with her. She also absolutely knows she screwed up, which is why she's so desperate to prove that she's friendly.

Look, what everyone else is saying about warming up to her a bit is probably right in terms of preserving any kind of professional relationship but I gotta say, I'd struggle to do that too (especially in light of the comments I just read that she made to you.) You did the right thing by bringing it up your boss. Hopefully she'll back off now. I'd aim for polite but distant if you can manage it. Poor you, this one is really awkward.
posted by Jubey at 7:47 AM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

She's making you feel uncomfortable, so it is appropriate that you went to her boss. Intent is not the only thing that matters in coworker relations; how the actions are received matters as well. As a professional, this means you take note of how people react and modulate your own behavior to avoid upsetting them for no reason. She needs to learn that skill and by going to her boss, you made it possible that she will be taught or trained in that area.
As someone who *hates* being treated differently by people who think I need to be brought out of my shell, I'd have reacted similarly to her over-the-top politeness. I take longer to warm up to people and being openly weird about that will never endear me to you.
posted by soelo at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, the skirt thing is inappropriate, but if the rest of what happened is as you described, you are just being rude. She's probably greeting you more loudly because of the way you're acting. If your go to is pretending not to hear, then don't be surprised if someone speaks more loudly to get your attention. In a work situation, snubbing someone forever because of one action that bothers you is way out of line and seems very junior high. You could have just said, "I appreciate that you wanted to fix my skirt, but please just tell me in the future. I really don't like being touched." That would probably have taken care of it without all of this drama. If this is really a big break for you, you are shooting yourself in the foot. You've reduced a well-respected employee who seems to get along with everyone else to tears. You don't have to love her, but when people greet you, you need to answer. Getting along with people in an office is as important as doing your job well.
posted by FencingGal at 8:28 AM on August 24, 2017 [34 favorites]

I had gotten up to refill my water glass and came back to my desk to find Handsy in tears, standing next to my chair. She wanted to know if I had a "problem" with her, and I said that I didn't have a problem with anyone. Her body language got more invasive--she stood over and pointed her finger at me--and said that she had seen how I acted with other employees and that I had been "different" with her, and again asked if I had a problem with her. I told her I didn't, and she said "You are lying to me and you are lying to yourself." She then left for the day.

But you are lying, because you do have a problem with her and you could have said right then and there, "I'm still weirded out by you fixing my skirt without asking first." Boom. Cat out of the bag, elephant in the room named, etc. Instead you escalated by denying that you have been ignoring her by pretending not to hear her for weeks which is, honestly, gaslighting her. And a shitty thing to do.

You don't have to be BFFs with anyone you work with. You should, however, use your words when things happen (skirt), and hit the minimum threshold of politeness with coworkers.
posted by kimberussell at 8:41 AM on August 24, 2017 [74 favorites]

Look. I, like most people, would find the skirt thing invasive and inappropriate. If someone touched me like that in the bathroom, I might even reflexively spin around and shove them away. So I am not minimizing the unpleasantness. On the other hand, there's no evidence at all that she did it because she was itching to touch you or to push you around. It may have just been an ill-thought-out friendly gesture or it may be a cultural difference--either way, it wasn't sexually aggressive or malicious (and, unless you're leaving something out, it wasn't in a cultural context of people like her being aggressive to people like you which would lend extra resonance to an otherwise isolated act like this). She's greeting you more loudly and effusively now because she's embarrassed and trying to establish that you two are on a normal basis. It's not what I would do, but it's fairly obvious. And there's nothing inherently inappropriate about that.

You say you don't want to be dramatic, but, by the way you've chosen to respond long-term, you've managed to take a single socially excruciatingly awkward moment and turn it into a prolonged workplace drama. Hell, you're basically turning it into an HR drama. You're a contract worker. You're the stranger in the office in a precarious position. Even if you didn't care at all about whether you're unnecessarily creating emotional unpleasantness in other people's lives, you're jeopardizing your job. You're dumping all over your big break because you refuse to rise to basic standards of professional courtesy with someone who did something wrong once, without evidence of ill intent. Has it not occurred to you that your boss, and probably most people at the office, are most likely going to like her better than you, and to give her the benefit of the doubt, and regard you as someone who can't behave professionally? But you should care about creating (unnecessary) emotional unpleasantness around you. If you can't give brief professional greetings and farewells on the way past someone in and out of the office, you need to start working on your social skills, stat, because you are honestly below the standards of the interns in my office now. There's no reason to be mean to people, and you're not yourself going to benefit from working in a socially hostile environment--unless you just like the drama.
posted by praemunire at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2017 [27 favorites]

The skirt thing was inappropriate. I don't care how many other people say they wouldn't mind; she didn't get your consent so the behavior had no place in an office, regardless of culture. As adults we have to get consent before touching others. It's not cute to just say, oh well, I'm just a handsy person, and pretend you don't know that, and go up someone's skirt. If you have someone's consent then go nuts I guess, but this wasn't a case where you had established a relationship where touching was okay.

Escalating loud greetings (I believe you when you say they were not truly friendly but rather passive-aggressive), and making a heightened, accusatory, personal scene were also inappropriate IMO. She could have a) talked to you privately, b) asked her or your boss for advice, or c) just let it go, instead of putting you on the spot.

This person creeps me out and I understand you reaction. If this were a man, nobody would be telling you you're rude not to interact. So, this is not easy for me to say, but you definitely should not pretend not to hear a co-worker. You can be cool and professional, but pretending you can't hear a greeting is not professional.

You also had ample opportunity to clear the air, though I understand this would have been hard and she was the one who put you in a bad position. Hopefully you can see now that by not speaking up, you contributed to this escalation, rather than ramping the drama down.
posted by kapers at 9:01 AM on August 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Yes, she was crossing a line when she pulled your skirt in the restroom.

However, I've reread this and I can't find the part where she murdered your puppy by putting it through a Cuisinart?

Because if you're giving someone the silent treatment, it's because they've done something that bad or worse. That they're so far beneath the standard of human society that they don't even deserve to have you acknowledge their presence.

Now she's as worried about you as you were about her, and she's trying to fix it in whatever clumsy way she knows how.

You don't have to be her BFF, but if you would like to be forgiven for your social errors, perhaps consider forgiving her for hers.

Either way, you need to treat her with minimal professional courtesy.
posted by tel3path at 9:11 AM on August 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm going to disagree a little and say that if you're not in the same dept (ie you don't have to forge any coworker relationship with this person besides hi/bye on the way in), then she is being equally rude by not picking up on your major leave-me-alone cues and insisting on your attention. I trust that you know the difference between normal hi/bye and fixating on you, and even if you've been rude, confronting you in tears is IMO way more inappropriate than anything you've done.

I do agree that some version of "I was alarmed when you fixed my skirt in the bathroom (when you didn't even know her yet?!), and I'm generally a private person. I'm sorry I haven't said hello very much, but to be honest I'm never going to be much for chatting" is the most drama-free way out of this.

What is your age gap? Are you the only women or something else in common in your office? Just wondering if there is some "work daughter" or other phenomenon going on here.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I guess, in other words,Coworker is not really obeying professional rules either, which IMO include things like "don't continue to needle the person who clearly doesn't want to be friends, especially if there's no reason you have to work together."
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:18 AM on August 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've noticed that Handsy doesn't have any contact with other members of my team; when she interacts with me, she's generally louder and more effusive in a way that strikes me as performative and insincere. If she were just greeting me at the same volume and with the same enthusiasm as she greeted other members of the staff, I'd let this slide, but when I get a loud, friendly greeting where others in the office get a quieter, more polite hello, I start to feel uncomfortable.

The thing is, a quiet, polite hello to the other coworkers probably earned her a quiet, polite hello in return. Whereas any greeting to you got her a performance of pretending not to hear her. (You'd have to be an amazing actor for that pretense not to be painfully obvious.) So it seems kind of disingenuous to complain that her behavior feels performative and insincere.

I mean, it's really hard to say what's up without actually knowing her, but it seems like you're pathologizing her without realizing that you've also been subjecting her for weeks to very weird behavior that is not at all within normal social bounds and must have felt really (passive) aggressive. And you know, from personal experience, how stressful abnormal behavior from a colleague can be. She seems to want too much from you, which I agree can be obnoxious (she really should have just written you off as a lost cause a long time ago). But nothing you've said rules out the possibility of her being a perfectly good human being whose big crime has been either being socially awkward or coming from a different social background than you. Can you try to think of her kindly? This is the kind of story that ideally ends with both of you saying "pax," and hopefully both developing more social skills.
posted by trig at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

You've created needless drama at work. A woman fixed your skirt so you wouldn't walk out the bathroom with your ass showing. She subsequently says hello to you and you've been rude and hostile to ordinary, work place greetings and interactions.

While you may not have liked how she handled pulling your skirt into place, and that's certainly fair, but is it worth holding a grudge over for the past two months? Most people would chalk up the skirt thing to awkwardness and move on. You decided she broke your personal code and needed shunning.

As a shunned person, she's been determined to make nice and you won't let her. Now, it's escalating because two people need to improve their social skills.
posted by shoesietart at 9:28 AM on August 24, 2017 [39 favorites]

At my workplace, it is policy that if you have an interpersonal issue (not serious offenses like harassment) with someone you should address the issue directly between the two of you first before escalating it to HR. So I don't think her approaching you about your obvious issue with her was an aggressive misstep in any way.

There is blame on both sides here but I think you shoulder more of it. I think you should go chat with her and lay it out there, "the reason I've been weird with you is because of that time you fixed my skirt, I'm really not comfortable with strangers touching me. Can we agree to not have that happen again? I'm sorry I've been so brusque with you as a result, hopefully we can get along better in the future." You don't need to be her best friend after that, I doubt that is what she expects from you. Once you've cleared the air just greet her pleasantly when you see her and that should be enough to satisfy her and ensure you're not deemed unfriendly or off-putting by the rest of your coworkers.
posted by scantee at 9:44 AM on August 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

Yeah, after your follow up I still think her behavior is consistent with a garden-variety office busybody. I agree with you that she's being passive aggressive in her response to you, which isn't ideal - but she's doing it in response to the silent treatment, which is equally inappropriate for a workplace. Her interaction with you earlier today is not professional and you were not out of line in letting your boss know of it. However, the tricky part here lies - as always - in the shades of grey: while her behavior was not acceptable, it's also pretty much in line with how I'd expect someone who invests a little too much in her social position at the office to react to being totally stonewalled by a new coworker.

I can tell this has really unsettled you and I'm really sorry. I know it totally sucks to feel like a situation ran away from you in this sort of way. But I'm worried if you continue in the vein that you have, you'll jeopardize your continued position there - I think the answers pointing out that if this spat continues, she's likely to get the benefit of the doubt over you are spot-on.

If you want to make this go away fast, I think your best move right now is to follow a script like scantee's - acknowledge the situation has gotten weird, tell her you were initially startled by the skirt incident and reacted badly, which snowballed, and that you're sorry now and hope you can have a good working relationship going forward.
posted by superfluousm at 9:56 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
1. When I say that Handsy reached up my skirt to pull the hem of my skirt out of the waistband, I mean exactly this. She stuck her hand up my skirt and made contact with the top of my thigh, almost to my rear end. I couldn't see her and thought I was alone in the ladies' room. (Just as background, I've been sexually assaulted. Even if she didn't know, this behavior is invasive and inappropriate...but I did find her actions triggering.) She didn't tell me this or ask if I wanted help--the way others might have done--and the fact that I suddenly felt a hand up my skirt and very close to my ass was upsetting and triggering for me.

2. Instead of coming to me and apologizing, she made light of her actions when she finally introduced herself to me.

3. She's had many opportunities to take me aside and politely ask if I was okay, if she could do anything to clear the air, etc., but instead she chose to handle this in a loud, public way. I barely know this woman and have no reason to interact with her (I reiterate: she's in a department that rarely interacts with my own and she never even says hello to my direct coworkers), and having someone performing friendliness in this way--and then coming to my desk in tears--left me feeling uneasy.

I didn't expect anyone here to blow smoke, but I'm really disappointed at the assumptions and exaggerations of what happened. I'm going to let you guys discuss this and I'm going to stop checking the thread now.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 10:18 AM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

I read your update: holy moley. It wasn't great to ignore her (and I will take others at face value that the initial skirt-fixing thing could be reasonably construed as appropriate in some cultures) but her overreaction to you ignoring her is... not great. Crying at work? Saying you're "lying to her" (inappropriate to say, but whatever) and "lying to yourself?" That last one is what sends me over the edge here. She has boundary issues. You took exactly the wrong tack with her overly effusive greetings. You are not to blame, but I would say at this point it needs to be handled by both of your supervisors.
posted by Automocar at 10:36 AM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

"You are lying to me and you are lying to yourself."

Really creepy and needs to be handled at a higher level. It reads to me as Handsy is attracted to the OP.
posted by jgirl at 10:45 AM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had the displeasure of having to work on a project with an older woman who was just like the OP's problem lady. Fortunately, she worked in another division miles away, so our contact was limited.

Until they shut my division down and transferred me to the one she worked for. And my new workspace? I got parked right next to her.

She repeatedly engaged with me over the next several years, to the point where I began talking back to her because her persistence wore me down. As a result, I discovered something about her. Two things, actually: 1. Most of our coworkers avoided her because of her behavior/personality. 2. She knew it. She actually told me that she has no friends because of her personality and inappropriate behavior, and it's been going on all her life. She now considers me her only friend.

She's still annoying as hell, but I can't help feeling some pity for this woman whose lack of social skills and unwillingness to change herself has made her a social outcast - and she knows it. She's very, very good at what she does, so she's never been at risk of losing her job, but nobody really wants to be around her.
posted by Lunaloon at 10:49 AM on August 24, 2017

2. Instead of coming to me and apologizing, she made light of her actions when she finally introduced herself to me.

I just have to comment on this -- this was probably her way of apologizing for what she did in a light-hearted manner. Did she say something like, "I should have introduced myself earlier -- I'm Joanne, the woman who grabbed your ass in the ladies room?" Because that's pretty much exactly what I would say in that situation (not that I'm a skirt-fixer, but if I were...) and it would be my way of saying "OF COURSE you know who I am, and I feel like a dope, so let's just move past this and try to have a normal work relationship." I think we all understand that this was triggering for you and upsetting. Shit, sometimes I flinch when my *husband* touches me without warning, so I get it. But at this point, I agree with others and really think you just need to say something to her, or shoot her a quick email, and see if you can move on. If I were a supervisor and was encountering this level of drama with a new contract worker after only 2 months, I'm not sure how much I'd want to keep them around.
posted by jabes at 10:50 AM on August 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

Instead of coming to me and apologizing, she made light of her actions when she finally introduced herself to me.

I completely understand that you found her skirt fixing invasive, I would too. I can only imagine it's much worse if you've been previously sexually assaulted and must have been very unnerving. But Handsy doesn't know you were assaulted, clearly wouldn't find it invasive herself and doesn't think it was weird or invasive of her to do.

It sounds like she's not good at reading social situations but she knows because you've repeatedly and consistently cold-shouldered her that you don't like her. Her "performative hello"s were likely her way of trying to get a response to reassure herself that you don't hate her but unfortunately it seems like you do hate her so it didn't work.

Ideally her next move (and much earlier on) would have been to quietly and privately ask you what the problem is and apologise when you (hopefully) explained (or just left you alone). Instead she let it build up til she was at exploding point and then you told her an obvious lie.

I've worked with people like her before who for whatever reason aren't socially fluent and don't get normal social cues. It's not reasonable to expect them to suddenly learn to follow those cues just because you think they should be able to. She's handled this badly because she reads social cues poorly. You've also not handled this well because you keep expecting her to read your cues (that you were upset about the skirt incident and don't really like her) and react how you would react by leaving you alone.

I can tell you're finding this really difficult. So is she. She is going about it all wrong and escalating the drama but you are too. I hope you can find a way to use your words (ideally with her) to de-escalate. She sounds annoying but well meaning and I really don't think you need to be at loggerheads.
posted by *becca* at 11:08 AM on August 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

Instead of coming to me and apologizing, she made light of her actions when she finally introduced herself to me.

Why would she apologize for something when she has no idea that she did anything wrong? You didn't say anything during or shortly after the incident - and you continue to not say anything to her two months later. The woman even came to you and asked of something was wrong and you lied and said no. I don't understand what you want to come out of all this.
posted by littlesq at 11:09 AM on August 24, 2017 [13 favorites]

She directly asked if you had a problem with her, and you lied to her and said no. Why? Because it was too public?

FWIW, saying "yeah, I had a problem with you touching my butt in the bathroom" is not exactly something you want to air in your public office - especially when the person has already violated norms of getting up in your desk space and being angry and tearful. I completely understand the impulse of deflect and deny when you're angrily confronted in the moment, and I don't think it's entirely fair to judge OP for not "clearing the air" when again, the coworker did not handle the confrontation well either.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:29 AM on August 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

I find it ridiculous to call someone a liar for not immediately telling you how they feel about you on demand! Your feelings are your own and no one gets to demand that you disclose them, especially someone you are not in a personal relationship with. You did not lie to her.
posted by soelo at 11:39 AM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]


This is absolutely not ok in any way. She knew she crossed a line or she wouldn't have made excuses for herself and wouldn't be sucking up so hard now. If she was a guy everyone would be saying how she inappropriately touched and is now harrasing you you to try and normalize the behaviour.

I absolutely cannot believe that people are defending her or telling you to suck it up and talk to her. The woman touched you in an intimate, not -socially acceptable way when you hadn't ever even met her. She then wasn't apologetic or remorseful about fucking up, but instead just defended her inappropriate actions.

It is not okay for anyone to touch you inappropriately. The fact that you're both women doesn't make it ok.

You don't have to play nicey nice with her.

You don't have to let her emotionally or socially manipulate you into pretending you are okay with her and what she did is fine to make her feel better.

What she is doing is continuing to be inappropriate and disrespect your boundaries by trying to force a rapport that you have made it abundantly clear you want no part in.

Normal, respectful people eventually give up when they realize that their unwanted advances aren't reciprocated.

It's totally understandable that you wouldn't go into it with her either, being inappropriately touched is upsetting, scary and confusing *especially* if you don't feel like you'd have social support for your complaint.

I'd keep ignoring her at most, this kind of person will probably just minimize your distress over her actions if you confront her.

The way this woman is behaving is absolutely awful and you have not done anything wrong.
posted by windykites at 11:45 AM on August 24, 2017 [16 favorites]

Yeah, I agree that there's a lot of unnecessary harshness in this thread. OP, I do think you could have handled the situation in a way that made things easier for you in the long run - in the future (if you're still reading), a complete refusal to acknowledge the other person's presence is probably a mistake - but I get the feeling you were doing the best you could in a very uncomfortable situation. You in no way gaslit or lied to this person in a meaningful way - she's a coworker, not a close intimate relation/friend, and should not have been confronting you so publicly in the first place. I think a lot of us would panic and insist everything was fine when faced with such an unexpected and unnecessary confrontation, and honestly, if I had been another coworker sitting nearby I would have been grateful to you for not taking the bait and getting into some weird, awkward dispute right there in front of everyone (though it sounds like she made it into one anyway - that's on her).

I'm sorry you're dealing with this situation. At this point it sounds like you've got her boss involved, and hopefully that will be the end of it - that's probably for the best. Here's hoping she leaves you alone after this.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:52 AM on August 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm feeling sad for both of you. I can say I didn't understand the same thing you meant by pulling the skirt out of the waistband. I thought it was stuck up around the back. I'm sorry I didn't understand; also, I think this is an example of there being different options for responding, and those options having different impacts. In the same breath, you let us know exactly what happened, in a way that really cleared things up (at least for me); and you removed yourself from the conversation. There *might* have been an opening there to share more information, and stick around also, before backing out completely. Building up that skill will be generally useful in life and the workplace.

But I don't know your experience and can't say what's right for you to do, or how much you should shift to accommodate other people. A lot of comments say you should accommodate the workplace culture. But Western workplace culture can be a messed up thing. Each of us should consider when and how to work within it. It's an imperfect setting with imperfect answers. To reach goals, you may decide to flex. Or you may take an initially harder route but feel you've stood up for yourself and your values. Some of us decide to just get out. I think people are trying to help you navigate it with the minimum amount of energy and maximum likelihood of reaching the specific goals of maintaining a network and furthering your career through this particular opportunity. I see ways you aren't going along with the flow, and yeah it could hurt your chances there. But it's all messed up in some fundamental ways, so I wouldn't necessarily take it personally. Lots of people don't want to have to greet other people. It's fine.

I do think if you can, in any way, see a path forward that doesn't include namecalling and this assigning of intent, it'll help you. At minimum it'll help in the conversation with the bosses. You'll come out looking like the bigger person. It may help you to move on, if you see her as a human, through a cultural lens, and not as someone who actively wants to hurt you. I can almost guarantee she doesn't. You can pity her. This could be an opportunity to practice compassion and empathy in the workplace context, in ways that align with your goals. If you hope to get to a place of reasonably positive interactions, if that's a goal, then this will help a lot.

In my workplaces I've seen people who had bad experiences at work and eventually they couldn't stay. Others let stuff roll of their backs. Or maybe they had a different perspective. Or maybe the things that happened to them were objectively less awful. The people who left are happy, and the people who stayed are happy. There isn't one wrong way to do things.

Hoping your bosses will help with the practical side and that you feel strong and positive about how things work out.
posted by ramenopres at 11:55 AM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted. Folks, let's take a deep breath please. Remember AskMe's not for debating other commenters. If you've given your answer in here, just leave it at that and trust the OP to use the suggestions that are helpful to her.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:04 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

anon, it sounds like you may be stuck in a false dichotomy: either acquiesce to what you (reasonably) feel is inappropriate or invasive behavior, or completely cut off all niceness to this person and give her the internal/secret name of "Handsy". It is possible for otherwise well-intentioned people to be socially awkward in ways that actually make us feel bad. We all do what we can; if you feel so bad that you have to shut down around this person, so be it. However, please consider that there are many other ways to interact with this person without seeming to approve of her behavior and without, well, intentionally hurting her.
posted by amtho at 2:31 PM on August 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

OP, I think it would be charitable to look at it from her perspective. She thought she was doing you a favor. Then, she's being friendly and you're not responding. She ups it, likely because she's wondering if she's misinterpreting things but it's becoming clear to her that you're shunning her and she has no idea why because, in her mind, she's done nothing wrong. Don't underestimate the power of being shunned to make one emotionally reactive. Then she asks you and you gaslight her. She's not crazy, you were shunning her. All because she did something that many women do that wasn't ok with you.

Have you thought of it from her perspective? You could absolutely be uncool with what she did and still have treated her better than this.

I hope you're not going to deny your role in this drama when she responds to this HR complaint with perplexity. At this point, only complete honesty from you and apologies from both sides (because I believe she will be mortified to learn about your feelings) will resolve this.
posted by vivzan at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

From my perspective, this is not a normal situation where two people got off on the wrong foot because of a cultural/psychological difference with touching without asking or because of different personality styles - this person is not taking "no" for an answer, and since she started by touching you in an under-clothes way without even giving you a heads-up or an apology, this puts it into deeply uncomfortable territory for me. A normal interaction would have been to give you a vocal heads-up about the skirt, as one would about spinach stuck between the teeth (rather than reaching into someone's mouth to "help" them with something that would embarrass them if not corrected). If she wanted to be friends or make sure you're ok with her, the way to do that isn't loudly and across a room, it's quietly and privately, asking and not demanding, and responding to a non-response by dropping it, not doubling down. She's putting you on the spot and then blaming you for making it weird. Her behaviour indicates that she thinks she is entitled to your attention on her terms. Her subsequent confrontation ("Do you have a problem with me?") where she wouldn't accept your answer reinforces this, and it is inappropriate for her to demand the same interaction or attention from you that you give to anyone else. She is not respecting boundaries. She is not taking no for an answer. She is insisting that she gets to define the terms of your interactions. If you have been sexually assaulted, these could all be triggering even if she hadn't introduced herself by putting her hand up your skirt. I have interacted with a handful of people like this (both men and women) over the past 30 years and one of the hardest things about it is other people telling me I'm wrong to resist the obviously nice and friendly overtures of the harmless friendly person who only wants to get me to smile or be friendly or let them do me a favour or take me to a movie or whatever.

I've never found a way to handle this that solves it other than removing myself from the situation where we overlap for whatever reason. You can be cordial at work to keep the peace, but she knows you don't want to interact with her and she's going to keep pushing your buttons and aggressively trying to get more out of you and demanding that you tell her what your problem is with her, etc.

Good luck, and feel free to memail me if you want a sympathetic ear. Oh and maybe read "Games People Play"? I remember getting some insight from that for one of these situations...
posted by you must supply a verb at 3:51 PM on August 24, 2017 [7 favorites]

AFAIK OP isn't reading the thread anymore. But there are some times when coworkers have made me so uncomfortable that, even though I knew the expected thing to do would be to speak to them, I physically could not. I felt like my chest was being squeezed and I had no air in my lungs and any words I could get out sounded squeaky or weirdly gruff.

When I've talked about these situations in the past I've been judged quite harshly, to my bafflement, and it took me a long time to begin to suspect that my response to this type of interpersonal stress is not something that everyone experiences, or that it takes less to trigger that response for me than it does for other people. It didn't occur to me, in the past, that this was something I needed to explain in order for others to fully understand my situation. OP's description makes me wonder if she might be experiencing something similar.

I'm not sure what to do about it and it's not the kind of thing that's easy to explain to coworkers or to anyone at all. As I've gotten older I've pushed myself to be more polite to people who make me feel terrified for reasons I can't explain. I'm still quite bad at it, but I know that not doing it at all hurts me professionally. It sucks.
posted by bunderful at 5:25 PM on August 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think she was marginally over the line originally with the skirt thing, if you felt creeped out it probably was your instincts picking up on some weird vibe she had. But I think your coldness and refusal to speak to her are even weirder, and a big over reaction. Why not just say hello and goodbye. You dont have to do any more than that. Your response just egged her on.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:29 PM on August 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

This question has clearly hit a nerve! I think it may be helpful to stop assigning blame and assuming intent. You can't read her mind, after all. But you can start thinking about what will most effectively resolve this tense situation. So, what's an ideal outcome? You're tired of giving this co-worker mental space, and ultimately you want to be left alone.

I'm in favor of a direct approach. You've been ignoring her for seven weeks yet clearly that hasn't worked. Shunning is off the table. It's ineffective.

Be kind, firm and honest. It's important that you enforce your boundaries, but it's also important that you take steps to de-escalate. Emotions are high on both sides. The longer this festers, the worse it will get. Right now there's a lot left unsaid. You can fix this.

Go to her. Right now she's coming to you – you probably feel trapped in your cubicle. Take the initiative and regain your power. Direct the situation.

When she comes into work tomorrow, drop by her desk and say, "Co-worker, I want to clear the air. Can we talk?" Take her aside. "Co-worker, I think you're a friendly person and you mean well. I'm happy to work professionally with you. However, I'm not interested in having a personal relationship. Something happened when I first started working here that made me feel very uncomfortable around you. I don't think you meant harm, but it really crossed my boundaries."

She's going to feel ashamed and ask what happened. Tell her the truth.

"Do you remember when we were in the ladies' room together, and you pulled my skirt out of my waistband? That really offended and startled me. I'm a very private person and I don't like to be touched by strangers. [I've been assaulted before, and it triggered a whole bunch of bad feelings that I've had ever since.] It caught me so off guard that I froze, and instead of saying something at the time I tried to let it pass. But I can't stop thinking about it. I know you meant to be helpful, but it really hurt me and put me off being friends."

She will either apologize, or try to save face (from her embarrassment) by joking awkwardly and dancing around the severity of it.

"Anyway, that's why I've been keeping my distance. I thought by ignoring you, the feelings would pass and you'd see that I wasn't interested in being friends. However, I realize now that it only made the situation worse. You've been trying harder and harder to make things right, but you can't, because you don't know what's wrong and I haven't been clear that all I really want is to be left alone."

She'll want to say her bit. She might cry. Let her air her feelings and if she says sorry, try to accept it graciously.

Conclude: "I don't dislike you, but I don't want to be close. I'm happy to say "Good morning" or "Bye!" when you head home, but that's as much as I want to interact. I don't want you to feel bad. It just makes me really uncomfortable when you keep stopping by my desk. Can we agree to just be pleasant, and keep things light and brief?"

If she agrees, hold up your end. Try to greet her first – you won't feel so trapped if you make the first move.

Bring a written script? It's better to say what you mean, awkwardly, than to lose track & risk further escalation.
posted by fritillary at 6:32 PM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised at all the comments being like "I too would feel uncomfortable if a stranger reached under my skirt, but OP should make nice and smile."

The skirt thing was absolutely a violation. This is not tucking in someone's tag or brushing lint off their shoulders (both of which are also intimate gestures, by the way.) No excuses for grabbing at someone like that. The fact that the OP and the other person are both women does not make assault ok.

And the woman's passive aggressive behavior, meltdown, and accusations of "lying to yourself" sounds... unhinged. I recently rewatched Notes on a Scandal so I'm maybe a bit primed, but Judi Dench's character comes to mind. I start wondering if the other people in the office are legit friendly with her, or just kinda terrified of this woman. I start wondering if this company has an ombuds office or somewhere else relatively neutral for the OP to go for guidance.
posted by basalganglia at 6:41 PM on August 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

I too am sort of... confused at the answers here? I'm all for smoothing things over. Sometimes we have to deal with crap people to keep our jobs. But we also have to protect ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Coworker was WAYYY over the line - toward assault territory by REACHING up your skirt. Anyone here who thinks it's okay. Put yourself in OPs situation. A stranger came up behind them, silently, in a bathroom where she thought she was alone, and reached her hand toward her genitals. (Can you imagine someone trying to zip your jeans instead of just telling you? Or adjusting your bra strap? They were touching OPs bare skin UNDER clothing.)

Even your description made me cringe and I'm someone who, while not super touchy myself, can still put up with touchiness usually.

You also don't owe anyone a "goodbye" or "hello." I think it's fine to recommend a nod or wave just to not ruffle feathers. But you don't work directly with this person and wouldn't speak to them otherwise. Even if she just flat out rubbed you the wrong way for whatever reason, I don't think you HAVE to say anything to her.

Then, she confronts you in PUBLIC and DRAMATIC way. I would be scared if some crying person showed up at my desk, accusing me of lying. And I think it's a NORMAL response, in self preservation, to say everything was "fine" even though it wasn't. Because you want it to blow over. And anything other than an "We're totally awesome!" - which is also a lie would have caused drama.

There was really no way to win here. I think if OP would have done the (maybe?) "Best" option of pulling her aside privately to say that her actions made OP uncomfortable, it would not have made less drama with this person. They couldn't think to send an email or ask to speak privately in the first place. Their emotional status it too tied up with someone - that they don't' speak to - liking them enough.

I think you did all the right things. To be honest, I probably would have done similar. I think her actions were inappropriate beyond "helping" and I think anything from coworker beyond a sincere and embarrassed apology is out of line. Making it YOUR problem that you were offended or aren't super warm to her is just another way that she is coming at you.

Now, I HATE drama. I think you did the right thing by quietly going to your boss. I think from now on be cordial. But I don't think you owe them anything. Do your job and keep your friendly head down. I'm worried how this person may react though if their boss speaks to them.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:28 PM on August 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

When I was younger, I had an older woman pull my skirt out of my pants in a public bathroom but didn't in any way touch my body inappropriately.

I think that the way that your co-worker handled the initial situation was wrong and I think the way she is dealing with you now is wrong. Some people have a very poor understanding of boundaries and of what is appropriate and not; they also assume that you'll just tell them if you're uncomfortable - they cannot fathom that you have had a life before your interactions with them (e.g., assault) and they cannot understand how you might be different from them (e.g., introverted) - they are very challenging to deal with.

There are also people who will exploit the fact that you are not a permanent worker and who may cross boundaries that they would otherwise not do with their permanent colleagues, mostly because they are really bored in their jobs, you're considered a temporary plaything, and it will be much harder for the powers that be to get rid of them than you. The fact that you're in different departments also muddies the waters.

Now that her boss is aware, I would just concentrate on doing your job to the best of your ability - as long as you act professionally within the actual parameters of your job, that is really the best you can do.
posted by heyjude at 8:07 PM on August 25, 2017

You also don't owe anyone a "goodbye" or "hello."

I don't think OP owes anyone hello or goodbye. I do think that being a temp means being in a more vulnerable position, and if other people in the office get the idea that OP is part of drama with a permanent worker it lessens her likelihood of staying on for her full contract and going full time if she wants to. You want to be unusual as a temp for things like getting work done ahead of schedule and showing up on time consistently, not for not speaking to others when greeted.

Someone who knows the whole story knows that the permanent worker crossed boundaries in a way that was very disturbing for OP, and that OP is trying to reinforce her boundaries to the best of her abilities. But people tend to make assumptions based on what they know, and what they know is almost never the whole story. And the decisions they make based on those assumptions will have an impact on OP.

At least from my POV, it's not about what's owed, it's about what best preserves OP's role in her workplace and enables her to have less drama with this person going forward.

I do think a nod or a wave is a perfectly acceptable substitute for speaking, and that was a good suggestion.
posted by bunderful at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two things. Fortunately I've never had a situation like this in a workplace or place where I had to see the person every day, but I can tell you right now, when my alarm bells go off (and I don't care who or what the person is, man, woman, or child even) I listen to my inner warnings period and I don't apologize for it. I'd much rather be thought of as a drama person than to have my personal space invaded, especially in an icky way which is what this sounds like to me. Secondly, anyone can be a sexual predator, man, woman, older grand motherly looking woman, a couple. I was traveling across country to move many years ago and went into a restaurant. There was a middle-aged couple staring at me, it totally gave me the creeps and I asked to be moved. I understand that this wasn't a work situation but really, I don't apologize for doing what I feel I need to do to stay safe and in my opinion, no-one else should either especially if some complete stranger is touching you in intimate areas. I mean wow that's soooo far out of what's ok.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 1:02 AM on August 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

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