@Work Advice: Karla Miller on personal space, the final frontier


Karla Miller (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
April 12, 2012

Reader: How do I tell an otherwise pleasant woman that when I say, “Don’t touch me,” I really mean it?

This new hire works hard and is pleasant except for two things. The first is that she calls people (including customers!) “sweetheart” every other word. I’ve started not paying attention to her when she starts out like that, and then I say I was not aware she was talking to me.

It’s her touching me that really drives me nuts. I was taught that it is rude to run your hand down a stranger’s back or to be constantly hugging those you don’t know well. I told her to not take it personally but that I am not a touchy [woman]. Her response was that they are very touchy in her family, as she hugged me and kissed my cheek. I’ve tried getting to know her so her quirks wouldn’t bother me as much. I believe her touching and pet names are culturally based (she’s from another country), but it’s inappropriate when someone has said to stop. We work in a small office and sometimes you have to let things go, but this is really bothering me.

Karla: Holy heebie-jeebies. I don’t even know her, and I want to pepper-spray her.

The “sweetheart” thing, while irritating and unprofessional, is minor — unless customers object, in which case the boss needs to hear about it. Otherwise, try to let it go, although you might make an entertaining point by dryly responding, “Yes, Smoochypants?”

But, oy, the touching. Different cultures have different boundary norms — and you’re always bound to run into individuals who think those unwritten standards don’t apply to them.

Talk to her once more, preferably with a desk between you. Without smiling or apologizing, say: “I like you, and I know you like to show affection. But I don’t like being physically affectionate at the office. I need you to please respect my boundaries.” Then reinforce as follows.

Stage One: Avoidance. Make a habit of placing obstacles between you and her — co-workers, a clipboard, a leaky toner cartridge — that make it awkward for her to lunge.

Stage Two: Defense. When she moves in, don’t shrink back. Draw yourself up tall and turn one shoulder forward, so she has a narrower target. If she’s trying to wrap her arms around you, intercept her forearms or shoulders, squeezing as though in affection — “Oh, I’m doing great, thanks!” — but firmly enough that she can’t get her hands on you.

Stage Three: Histrionics. When you feel a hand on your back, shriek and jump out of arm’s reach, clutching your heart. Yes, it’s drastic, but this dame is apparently in need of a thwack with a clue-by-four.

@Work Query: Are your youthful looks holding you back? Maybe I can help in an upcoming column. Send a photo and 150 words to: wpmagazine@washpost.com, subject line “Babyface.”

Karla Miller lives with her family in South Riding, Va. For 16 years, she has written for and edited tax publications. Send your questions to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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