4 principles on the right physical contact in the workplace

Jan 12, 2016 by Brendan Jack

Touching people with your message or goodwill is great, but what about physically touching them at work?

Touch is great non-verbal communication, it creates camaraderie and sometimes signals security… but it’s not always appropriate.

Healthy interpersonal space

Maybe you’re a hugging, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of person, maybe you’re a cold fish who wouldn’t even attempt a guarded half-man-hug.

Everyone has a different tolerance for touch. Remember, not everyone has your outlook on life. (This is a good perspective to consider for most interactions in life.)

Become aware of how other’s react to your touch – this awareness uses the same skill as listening.

Maybe you grew up in a family that hugged and kissed outside the school-yard in full view of your friends, while others got nothing but a steely stare from their dad after he got back from the factory – and maybe a firm handshake on birthdays.

Culture club

We live in a huge cyber village, but we are still products of our culture. As with individual awareness, consider cultural awareness.

Latin or Mediterranean countries might be fine with hugs and kisses to the cheek – like they’re old tango dance partners. Places like Germany, not so much.

The safe zone

The topic of touching colleagues can make you think of the creepy boss who often gets within two drinks of a sexual harassment suit at the office party.

General safe zones for touching are arms or a pat on back.

Gently tapping someone on the back of their hand, arm or shoulder to say, “It was good to meet up” is a good idea when you mean well… as long as you’ve correctly read the situation.

High-fives offer a more playful gap between the formality of handshakes and boundary crossing hugs.

Keep things tidy in the company bathroom. Some people are germophobes, some just want five minutes of alone time. Physical contact in the bathroom is general a no-go, unless you just hooked up on Tinder.

If you work remotely and want to touch someone, send them a high five mail or a variety of other mail images.

Consider an icebreaker. The Little Friend or Hypnotized with a Finger maybe better for people you have a rapport with, but Cut Loose involves minimal touch and can easily be used on a stranger.

Reading signs

If people start avoiding you in the hallway, it may have something to do with your personal space attacks.

If you’re uncomfortable with a colleague’s touch, try using humour to make them aware: “Are you going to buy me dinner first before going for second base?”

Summing up

There are no hard and fast rules here, but common sense is needed, according to the person you’re interacting with.

Be aware of yourself, read their body language and don’t be creepy. If you really want a lingering hug from someone, go and visit your family.

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