Touchy co-workers
December 19, 2006 1:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a coworker who not only invades my personal space when she talks to me, but also tends to grab my arm or make other physical contact when talking to me. It puts me into immediate defensive 'fight or flight' mode. Should I bring it up with her directly?

Lately I have just been pulling away when she comes by but that still doesn't do anything about the initial contact. It really irks me to be touched at work (as North American custom really isn't to touch anybody you work with) and by people I don't know very well.
posted by PWA_BadBoy to Human Relations (20 answers total)
Where are you, where's she from, and do you think her behavior is cultural or sexual?
posted by davy at 1:13 PM on December 19, 2006

Best answer: Yes, say something to her directly. I would couch it as if it were your issue (and not her's). Something along the lines of, "You know I really need a lot of personal space or I become somewhat claustrophobic, would you mind stepping back a bit?"
posted by sulaine at 1:15 PM on December 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There is nothing sexual about it at all. She is old enough to be my mother. I think it's cultural. I am Chinese-Canadian (born and raised) and I believe she is Indonesian but seems to have been in North America for a reasonably long time.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 1:21 PM on December 19, 2006

Cross your arms and take a big step back. Avoid eye contact until your co- worker gets the message.
posted by puddinghead at 1:24 PM on December 19, 2006

Yeah, just tell her not do that, that it's uncomfortable for you.
posted by Listener at 1:24 PM on December 19, 2006

I think you need to hug her whenever she invades your space. Tight like a boxer's clinch. Every time.
posted by SMELLSLIKEFUN at 1:30 PM on December 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

You shouldn't be avoidant, or nasty about it. She likely has no idea that this upsets you, and won't be offended if you say something. Some people are just naturally physically affectionate. If she keeps doing it after you tell her, don't take offense, but do remind her how you feel. People like this can be totally oblivious and she may have to consciously remember, "oh, right, PWA_BadBoy doesn't like that."
posted by miagaille at 1:34 PM on December 19, 2006

I had this same issue with a fitness instructor of mine.

The response you highlighted is the approached I used and it worked just fine.
posted by konolia at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2006

"approach." pft.
posted by konolia at 1:52 PM on December 19, 2006

My boss is much the same way. It bugged me to no end that he'd get right up next to me (no physical contact, but really, really close) when talking. It doesn't bug me that much any more, but whenever I get claustrophobic I remind myself that he's from Hong Kong and that he doesn't have the same notions of personal space that I do, even though he's lived in the US since he was 18 or so. This is actually pretty common. I've seen articles describing physical space requirement being a primary difficulty in cross-cultural relations.

So, as much as it may weird you and me out, try to be understanding.

As an aside, physical space requirements also vary between city folk and country folk. People from rural areas tend to need a lot more space than people who were raised in cities.
posted by lekvar at 2:27 PM on December 19, 2006

I knew someone who "cornered" those she spoke to. Watching her writing with her head close to the page convinced me that she was simply myopic and needed to be close to focus.
posted by Cranberry at 3:08 PM on December 19, 2006

Say something once and they won't mind much and won't forget.

My reflex when trying to get someone's attention is to touch them, generally on the shoulder or arm. When I enter a new workplace there is generally someone who points that out and says "I don't like to be touched," and that's absolutely fine with me.
posted by mek at 3:11 PM on December 19, 2006

Be careful here. Indonesians do a lot of touching, and though for you it may be obvious, for someone from another culture, touching is just natural. So though it bugs you, she does not even notice it.

So when you come with that personal space crap, it comes across as pretty insulting. Be culturally sensitive, but know that almost anything you say is going to be misintepreted, and there will be a certain coldness between the two of you from then on.

Personally, I'd suggest just enjoying the physical contact. It may not be normal to you, but accept it as part of a foreign way of communication.

If you do not want to be seen as being close to this person, so have to stop the contact, I'd suggest this: When a person touches you, gently take their arm, off the place, hold it for a while, and move it about as if gesticulating what you are currently saying. Then drop it.

It's difficult to explain, but done right, it conveys a certain warmth, and lets the person know you prefer non-personal contact.
posted by markesh at 3:43 PM on December 19, 2006

I can sympathize; it can be very upsetting, and people who do it will never really understand how upsetting it is.

Tell her that you would appreciate if she didn't touch you in the future.
posted by watsondog at 3:56 PM on December 19, 2006

Maybe you could use this as an opportunity to become more open-minded about it. As long as she's not being sexual or otherwise inappropriate, the problem here isn't hers, it's yours -- it's your discomfort. And if you make it into a confrontation, it will likely offend her. I know if someone whose arm I casually touched in a conversation told me not to touch them please I would think they had major issues.
posted by loiseau at 4:15 PM on December 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have fibromyalgia pretty severe in my shoulder to elbow area of my arms. When a person new to me touches me on my arms, I flinch, then explain how painful it is. As a result of the pain fibromyalgia causes me when touched, I tend to have a "large" personal space.

On the other hand, if someone doesn't respect my request for space (medical reasons) and will crowd me, instead of backing up, I move closer towards them which usually results in them backing up.
posted by JujuB at 8:51 PM on December 19, 2006

Markesh, I wouldn't call it "that personal space crap" - that makes it sound like it's wrong on the poster's part. It's not wrong at all.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:17 PM on December 19, 2006

altogether too much deference is being shown here to the toucher, and not nearly enough to the touchee.
softly, calmly, say "keep your cottonpickin hands offa me!"
posted by bruce at 11:58 PM on December 19, 2006

She's obviously has a Physical love language (required for all people of the world: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman), and may best interpret communication she will most likely take note of, in the same manner. To us Physicals (I do the same thing she does) this isn't an invasion at all, and is something we wish more people would do to us ("you give, you get" formula). You gotta tell it to her up close, and directly.
posted by vanoakenfold at 6:57 AM on December 20, 2006

The two non-confrontational ways I've dealt with these situations in my life are (a) to stand with my weight on my rear foot and my other foot somewhat forward (experiment - you'll figure out how to do it) so that they have to be a little farther back or (2) take a half-step back and say "I'm a little farsighted - I can't focus on you when you're closer than this." It's completely non-judgmental and emphasizes they you're looking to improve your connection, as well as making it about your physical limitations

Perhaps as karmic backlash, now that I am older my up-close vision is worse and it's even somewhat true now. :/
posted by phearlez at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2006

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