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Last week a new coworker joined our team, and yesterday we were both invited to eat lunch in the work cafeteria with some other colleagues that I have known for around a year and a half. As he, another colleague that I know quite well (and would describe as a friend) and I all went to leave through a small section between two counters, he put his hand on my back (kind of as though pushing me with what felt like a finger or a few fingers, and with pressure).

He is an Italian man who has moved to England from Italy for this job, and I am an English woman. I am aware that in Italy it is more common for people to have more physical contact with each other, and while I would maybe be comfortable with a close friend touching me on the back (though I am not sure as no friends have touched me anywhere other than maybe on the arms in a long time), I wouldn't really expect it from a coworker I'd only met the week before and so naturally I was confused and uncomfortable.

In attempt to communicate my confusion at being touched to him, I stopped walking and gave him a sort of confused and unhappy look, but all he said was "you first", as in, he was touching me on the back to allow me to step through the counter first. However, the way to communicate this here is more commonly by stepping back to let the other person pass and maybe saying "you first", it doesn't generally involve touching anyone. I should probably also mention that I wasn't stood in front of him, I was stood sort of to his left, which made it even stranger to me that he would touch me there.

Whilst I don't want to make it awkward by bringing it up now, how can I communicate in the future that I feel the way I am being touched is inappropriate, without embarrassing both of us as I feel like he doesn't really know that what he's doing is inappropriate? Clearly non-verbally isn't the correct way to go about this as he continued to touch my back, and I don't think I could reach to remove his hand as it was right in that middle point of my back where it's not easy to reach, so how would be best to approach this sort of situation if it arises in the future?

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    Could you clarify if this person is from the North of Italy or from the South? It might seem irrelevant but the customs for body contact are somehow different between the various parts of Italy and the best way to explain the concept might need tweaking as well. – Andrea Lazzarotto May 18 '18 at 13:43
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    I wondering the no "touching thing" is a general norm in England or just you in particular? Because you said you wouldnt matter if a friend touch you like that. So that can give mixed signals if you let a friend touch you. For me that is woulf be normal, is like a gentleman gesture "I have your back". The same way I would help a women at stairs if she is wearing high heels – Juan Carlos Oropeza May 18 '18 at 17:01
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    @JuanCarlosOropeza I wouldn't say it's just me, but I personally am uncomfortable with it. Touching others in the workplace in such a way is something I would consider totally inappropriate, and I can't imagine a time when I would be comfortable with anyone touching me in this way other than maybe my boyfriend (and there was enough force and physical discomfort in the way he did it that I would have told my boyfriend off for doing it). – Styxal May 21 '18 at 8:24
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    @AndreaLazzarotto as I've not really spoken to him more than a couple of times, I can't tell you whereabouts in Italy he is from right now – Styxal May 21 '18 at 8:25
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    @Vilx- surprisingly in all the time I've been working here with people moving from other countries to work here, I've never had anything that's made me uncomfortable in this way before. I'm usually pretty easygoing, and have gotten along well with Italian colleagues in the past, so this was really unexpected for me. – Styxal May 21 '18 at 8:43

10 Answers 10

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Coming to this from a UK perspective and also as someone who prefers not to be touched in this kind of situation I'm going to make a slightly different recommendation from the existing two answers.

From what you have said you don't want to create a fuss or cause embarrassment to either party. There is a risk that making a special point of going and talking to this man or emailing him some time after the event makes it very evident how big a deal it was for you. While that may be the reality, it isn't what helps in minimising fuss or embarrassment.

What you are trying to do is establish boundaries of acceptable behaviour, and as with pets and children so it is with adults, transgression of boundaries is most effectively dealt with in the moment that the transgression occurs, minimising the timeframe in which misunderstanding and bad feeling can grow.

So I would suggest doing nothing until, and unless, it happens again. if it does happen again, I agree that a big fuss is undesirable, but there are lighter ways it can be managed. In all of this I am taking your assumption of mere cultural differences as read rather than any situation of deliberate harassment.

Let's assume the exact same happened again, that he touched your back to indicate that you should go through the space first. There are two ways you could react in order to raise the point:

  • You could step out of reach of his hand and ask him not to touch you. This would draw the attention of anyone nearby and would likely read to your colleague as a disgusted recoil. That's quite a difficult situation to move forward from and is likely to cause the sort of fuss you wanted to avoid.
    or
  • You could tolerate the touch for the few seconds and once you have passed between the counters pause to let your colleague catch up and then walking in step speak quite casually, or even sotto voce to him, saying something like

    I ought to have warned you the last time that happened, as a general rule in the UK we don’t really touch colleagues like that. It might be different if you know them well, but I'd hate for you to get into any misunderstandings. A lot of people, myself included, really don't like it and it is so easy for cultural differences to be misinterpreted.

    and them smoothly move the conversation on to some other innocuous topic.

That second approach allows you to put him right in a manner that suggests concern for him as well as for yourself and is informative rather than rebuking.

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    Spot on about responding in the moment. It's really the only way to not make the situation weird IMO, along with just being really casual and understanding about it. – aw04 May 18 '18 at 15:57
  • I'm not sure if the culture is different in the UK than the US, but here I'd see it as a "teaching moment", in which case it would be acceptable to (privately) speak with him even after the fact and let him know that some people can be uncomfortable with physical touch, and while you understand he was just trying to be polite, that the local custom is to simply step back and gesture (while demonstrating yourself) with a simple verbal cue such as "after you" – Doktor J May 18 '18 at 20:18
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    @DoktorJ To me a ‘teachable moment’ means that you teach in the moment not that you reference the moment at some later time, as is clear from my answer. If you think a different approach is preferable you can write an answer yourself, as it stands your remarks don’t suggest any improvement to mine. – Spagirl May 18 '18 at 20:54
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Disclaimer: My answer comes from the Indian culture and I am writing my answer based on a similar situation occurred at an organization once I worked for.


Non-verbal communication is less-likely to work in such situations. A simple message will give him the hint.

Find a time when it's only the two of you or you're not surrounded by too many people. If you say it in front of many people, your co-worker will feel embarrassed (but save this for later). Try to tell him (in private) that you don't like being touched while being gentle at the first time. Say like,

I wanted to tell you that I am not a very touchy-feely person. And it's not specifically you, I don't like being touched in general.

Just keep it simple as that. This way, you can also convey that it's not only about him so he will feel less-singled out. Since there is a cultural difference, you can also add

That's not what we really do in Britain.

to make him feel less embarrassed.

If they stop it, then it's all good. If they don't, be firm and repeat it again.

I think I have told you already but I'd repeat it for the last time. Don't touch me without my permission again.

Next time, you can escalate it to HR department (or higher authority in your workplace). I saw this similar situation in my previous organization and that girl confronted that colleague who stopped that behavior after this.

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I'm italian, and yes, it's quite common in Italy to have this type of physical contact. On the back it wouldn't even be considered an unappropriate physical contact... I guess that your colleague doesn't do it on purpose, probably it's just an habit.

You can talk to him and be clear about it:

I don't want to be rude, so please don't take it personally, but I don't like people touching me, so please try to not do it again.

you can also try to explain that in UK you don't have all the physical contacts we have in Italy, so you are not used to them.

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The other answers seem a bit confrontational to me. I would just ask him in a similar way you did in your question.

Hey, [colleague], this might be a cultural thing, but why are you touching me like that?

This will communicate that you're not accusing him of molesting you, but that there's something weird going on. Whatever answer he gives, you can then say:

Well, we don't really do this in England, it's kind of awkward.

After that, he will probably get the message. If not, I suggest following the advice in A J's answer.

11

The other answers sounds a little harsh to me. I'm Brazilian and we share a lot of Italian habits (a lot of people in Brazil are Italian descendants, by the way).

If you would follow some of the other answers, most probably your coworker would feel more uncomfortable than you did when he touched you.

So, you can start the dialog like this:

Hi Italian guy! It seems to me that people in Italy are warmer than here in England. Have you noticed it since you moved here?

Expect him to agree with you and talk more about the differences that he found when moved to England. After that, just tell him:

Very nice, in England we are way more different. So, remember when you touched my back when leaving the Cafeteria? This could sound weird to you, but I felt uncomfortable when you did this. So, it would be nice if you'd stop doing it. It's nothing personal, but even my closest friends don't take the leave to do that. It's just not common here.

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... As he, another colleague that I know quite well (and would describe as a friend) and I all went to leave through a small section between two counters, he put his hand on my back (kind of as though pushing me with what felt like a finger or a few fingers, and with pressure).

... In attempt to communicate my confusion at being touched to him, I stopped walking and gave him a sort of confused and unhappy look, but all he said was "you first", as in, he was touching me on the back to allow me to step through the counter first. ... I should probably also mention that I wasn't stood in front of him, I was stood sort of to his left, which made it even stranger to me that he would touch me there.

You are with someone else and he steps in to apply force to you from behind, when you question his actions (with a look) he tries to either turn it around or deescalate the situation and calmly say "you first".

You were first already, and going, but he's entitled to push into your space and physically push you. He's essentially say 'get going, darn well hurry up' - saying "excuse me" is the more polite way to interrupt you and your colleague, waiting a few moments is even a wiser move. The new guy either doesn't know his place or you're someone, some woman, in his way.

He attempts to turn around his pushing by simply trying to make it seem like he had important advice to offer; "you're in front of me, get going".

It's ignorant or rude.

Understand that it is likely just his way (others have described it as a cultural thing) and not an attempted assault, but that neither means it's desirable nor acceptable. Part of the problem is that it is "his way" - like you actually needed him to be present and to physically guide you through life. You might view it as domineering or demeaning. If he wouldn't do it to a really large man that he didn't know you can be certain that he knows it's an unwanted action, but that can be difficult to determine.

Next time you might want to "communicate your confusion" then and there by insisting that he go first, if he questions your actions politely explain that "You want to ensure that he doesn't reach out and apply his all knowledgable guiding hand, that you can work this out without physical contact". That allows him and out if it was simply a momentary lapse of judgment and a spotlight if he thinks he is correct.

Don't go overboard on a single error in judgment (maybe you were dawdling and everyone behind him was pushing him, 'tell those two to get going ...') but at the same time don't accept being thrown under the bus, him (move aside woman, man coming through).


Why you are correct to object to this behaviour:

In an article on Workjax titled: "The Four Zones of Interpersonal Space" it is described this way (I'll quote the minimum):

"One of his chapters (in Dr. Tony Alessandra's book "Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism that Leads to Success") is dedicated to the use of space and time. He describes the four zones of interpersonal space and how to use them effectively.

  • The intimate zone is within touching distance, from actually touching to about two feet. This is the space reserved for people who genuinely care about each other. Lovers hold hands and parents carry their children or put their arms around them protectively. It’s rare to see this space penetrated in business settings. But when it managed effectively, it can send a powerful message. Women use this space more than men; they tend to reach out and touch people more often.

[It seems like he was able to go out of his way to slide-in a situation where he feels he can justify his actions - explain politely and clearly that it's not necessary, that comes across better than explaining that he's not to do that.]

  • The personal zone is from two to four feet. It’s used for discussions that are private and not meant to be overheard. In a busy networking meeting or at a party, people will avoid breaking this barrier if you are engaged with someone else at this distance. If you’ve ever been trapped by a bore and waited in vain to be rescued, try moving another foot away. It will open up your space for someone to enter.

  • The social zone is four to twelve feet apart. This is the space used for public and casual social conversations. It allows others to enter into the group. It can be fascinating to watch people conversing in a group; they resemble fish in a school as they move in and out to make a comfortable space for new entries.

  • The public zone is more than twelve feet. Public speakers and important figures use space to distance themselves from their audience (and establish authority, since demanding more space is a power signal.)".

That is how one doctor describes the situation.

A similar explanation is offered on Wikipedia's webpage on proxemics in the section on cultural factors and interpersonal distance:

"Edward Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, described the interpersonal distances of man (the relative distances between people) in four distinct zones: (1) intimate space, (2) personal space, (3) social space, and (4) public space.

Horizontal distances

  • Intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering

    Close phase – less than 1 to 2 cm
    Far phase – 6 to 18 inches (15 to 46 cm)
    
  • Personal distance for interactions among good friends or family

    Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet (46 to 76 cm)
    Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet (76 to 122 cm)
    
  • Social distance for interactions among acquaintances

    Close phase – 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 m)
    Far phase – 7 to 12 feet (2.1 to 3.7 m)
    
  • Public distance used for public speaking

    Close phase – 12 to 25 feet (3.7 to 7.6 m)
    Far phase – 25 feet (7.6 m) or more.
    

The distance surrounding a person forms a space. The space within intimate distance and personal distance is called personal space. The space within social distance and out of personal distance is called social space. And the space within public distance is called public space.

Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger, or anxiety when their personal space is encroached. Permitting a person to enter personal space and entering somebody else's personal space are indicators of perception of those people's relationship. An intimate zone is reserved for close friends, lovers, children and close family members. Another zone is used for conversations with friends, to chat with associates, and in group discussions. A further zone is reserved for strangers, newly formed groups, and new acquaintances. A fourth zone is used for speeches, lectures, and theater; essentially, public distance is that range reserved for larger audiences.

Entering somebody's personal space is normally an indication of familiarity and sometimes intimacy. However, in modern society, especially in crowded urban communities, it can be difficult to maintain personal space, for example when in a crowded train, elevator or street. Many people find such physical proximity to be psychologically disturbing and uncomfortable,5 though it is accepted as a fact of modern life. In an impersonal, crowded situation, eye contact tends to be avoided. Even in a crowded place, preserving personal space is important ...".


I appreciate that this was a lineup situation and that there's a "small section between counters" but it is incorrect for the "new person" to try to be the alpha dog (Definition sources: #1, #2).

I wouldn't try to overblow the situation if you are able to simply and easily convey that you don't want him to reach out like that. Maybe he likes you, a lot.

He needs to understand that he has in fact thought it OK, apparently even positioned himself, to leap over a few boundaries in a single bound. It's literally pushy, demeaning and even belligerent between males.

Don't feel you are wrong to tell him his actions are wrong.

4

I'm Italian, I live abroad since a while, and I always hated those that kept touching everyone also in Italy.

Yes, as you say, physical contact is more common in Italy, and I can completely imagine that for him it was a perfectly reasonable way of telling you to move forward ahead of him. I can also understand that for you was exactly the opposite.

A first tentative could be to use the internal mail system of your company; send him a short email simply telling him "today/yesterday you touched me so and so, apparently to let me go ahead. please be aware that I don't appreciate physical contact and I would rather prefer a verbal communication"

If he does not get the "hint" and keeps touching you afterwards, you have every right to escalate, either by reacting strongly when he touches you (so that you have witnesses), or eventually by moving the matter to HR (and you have proof that you asked him already, with the email).

I realize that it might seem heavy handed, but I base this on the description that you gave of him, and I have the personal feeling that a person freely touching strangers needs a strong signal to understand that he needs to change his methods.

Are you suggesting email before talking in person? That might seem a little weird, especially for someone in your team.

yes, I suggested this because I assumed this to be a large company, and based on the asker comment on "not wanting to embarrass both of them". Talking in person could be overheard, and having this conversation in written form could avoid potential problems of talking face to face, starting from saying the wrong thing while trying to answer in a hurry.

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    Are you suggesting email before talking in person? That might seem a little weird, especially for someone in your team. – Erik May 18 '18 at 8:53
  • @Erik mileage may vary, obviously. I assumed a large company. I am going to edit my answer to address your comment. – Federico May 18 '18 at 8:54
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    Your answer is subjective. Because you "always hated", your suggestion is a bit harsh. Also, using the expression "Apparently to let me go ahead" - you imply that he had other intentions, but you don't know that. Even more, you know that touching is quite common in Italy. – lukuss May 18 '18 at 11:34
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    @lukuss the "apparently" could be a mistranslation on my side. I used to indicate that that's what he said, but we cannot be absolutely sure. I don't want to imply that for sure there were other intentions, but neither discount the possibility. – Federico May 18 '18 at 11:42
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    If you put in writing that you're getting unwanted physical contact from him, it's going to sound bad. – person27 May 18 '18 at 14:13
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My suggestion is a little bit different, since your new coworker seems to have circumstances.

  1. In his country, touching is common. Maybe even the habit to let others in frond by touching, is common in his country, or town, or friends.
  2. He touched your back.

So we cannot rush in thinking that he had other intentions. Hence, my suggestion is to leave things the way they are right now and at the next lunch or break, bring up the touching topic and mention that you really dislike that. Speak nicely and warmly so he doesn't feel you're pointing at him. You can still be friends or work together after that.

I have some habits that some people might not like, but I usually ask the person if he/she's OK with that kind of joke or thing, that's the reason I suggest the kind-way of resolving this problem.

Also, because I'm very used to these habits, I sometimes do it by accident to some people, but when I realize they don't like it I feel really bad. Of course, I apologize.

So, if he continues after you mention that you don't like to be touched and doesn't apologize, you can go on the harsh-way, taking him aside and make clear: you don't like it and ask him to stop doing it.

3

He's a man. If you say "Don't touch me" at the moment when it happens, that is a clear indication that you don't want to be touched, and a man will respect that. (Not all males will, but a man will).

He may think that what he's doing is not inappropriate, which I hope is the case, but it's not appropriate to touch someone who doesn't want to be touched, and you inform him of the fact. It's done in a second, and it won't happen again. Saying "Don't touch me" is something that cannot be challenged without being incredibly rude, so it won't be challenged.

If you see the person later, you may tell them "Sorry for shouting at you, but I really don't like being touched".

Others recommend giving out all kinds of non-verbal hints. Men don't get non-verbal hints. Men do get "Don't touch me". If you are surrounded by people and give non-verbal hints, all the women around you will think "she really didn't like something he did", all the men will think "why is she pulling faces", and the man touching you will have no idea.

0

As nobody mentioned it yet:

You can also use nonverbal communication to give a hint that you are not comfortable with his touch:

  • Cross your arms
  • Pull yourself a little bit off
  • Give him an angry look. You can either:
    • Take a look at his hand for a moment, then take a look at him and take a look at his hand again. (to indicate where is the problem)
    • Freeze your head on him for a moment (to indicate that something is not right)
  • Spin yourself in an instant as if you was surprised or going to say What do you want from me?

If he touches your back as if he was "walking along with his girlfriend" you can cross your arms and step out in a perpendicular direction.

If he touches your shoulder you can lower it and pull yourself towards an opposite shoulder so his hand can slip down naturally.

It is very likely that he would ask whats wrong. In that case you can simply state that you do not enjoy physical contact only.

protected by SQB May 22 '18 at 11:23

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