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I sometimes have an issue where people, especially older ladies, touch my arm or shoulder when they are talking to me.

Usually it is only for a few seconds but sometimes it is more than that, and it is often very uncomfortable.

I think they do not mean to make me uncomfortable, in fact sometimes they give a compliment or say something flattering when they touch me, so I know they are just being friendly.

How can I communicate to them that I do not want to be touched?

  • Are they people you know personally (friends, maybe acquaintances), or are they strangers who you just have a one-time conversation with? – enlighten_me Jun 7 '18 at 1:21
  • why do you think that "Please don't touch me" or "I don't feel comfortable being touched" wouldn't work? what is your goal? – Kaspar Scherrer Jun 7 '18 at 7:12
  • Are you looking for a non verbal communication about that, or also telling them explicitly is fine? Are those people that do it often / you have relations with? Do you always want to communicate the message you don't want being touched, or sometimes just get out of the situation without telling anything or possibly making the other side feel uncomfortable? – arieljannai Jun 7 '18 at 8:32
  • similar question: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/q/9016/8077. (not a duplicate!) You might find good information in the answers there too. – Kaspar Scherrer Jun 7 '18 at 11:43
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I once had a professor at university I was working for and had a similar issue. When he asked how I was doing, he was touching my arm or shoulder, sometimes even rubbing it. He definitely meant to be nice, but it was very uncomfortable and since he was higher than me in the hierarchy and I needed to be in his favor, since he was my boss, I never said something.

One day I got the following tip in a communication training:

Work with your body to define your personal boundary.

It sounds odd, but it worked like a charm for me.

First, be aware of you body and your own posture. A straight back and an upright position help with building up the aura of being in control of your own personal space. Second, if you see the person coming towards you with their hand reaching for your shoulder, just ever so slightly turn your shoulder back. It is often enough, if it is a really subtle movement that is done very consciously by you. The other person will get the feeling, that their touch is not welcome. If that is not enough, you can do a little step backwards. Even so, you don't have to stare at their hand or something like that, just keep your personal space around you. Keep looking them in the eye and maintain focus on the conversation like normal.

If someone is already touching you, because you were keeping your guard down, this can be a bit more difficult and removing their hand as was suggested could maybe help, but I recommend to just withdraw from them, before actively forcing their arm in another direction. Just because they are touching you, you don't have to do the same.

Telling them about your discomfort is the last resort in my opinion, as this will not only actively interrupt the conversation, but also will maybe embarrass the other person and oblige her to feel bad about it and apologize, even though they were not even aware about it until that.

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In past experience, a pat on the arm or shoulder while saying something nice is on reflex or for reassurance. I live in the UK and typically in meeting elderly people, especially ladies, it can be a common thing (it seems to happen in lots of countries I've been to but it seems more commonplace in the UK). As you've said, it's not likely that they are trying to make you uncomfortable. I too am not keen on unnecessary bodily contact; there are a couple of things I've tried.

If someone puts their hand on my shoulder for example, I look straight towards the arm. Keep the conversation going, don't look angry, but look with obviousness towards the hand, not just a glance. Rather than recoil, step back or shove them away, gently push their hand away with your free one. This way, you've non-verbally and non-aggressively made your discomfort clear and more times than not, this prevents it from happening again.

In the rare times it persists, a firm but polite "I'd prefer you didn't do that" works, in addition to what I suggested above. Adding a small distance between you and the other person might be helpful too. Again, this helps get your point across without coming across as angry or aggressive.

If all else fails, you will have to be direct and tell them "I'm not comfortable with being touched". On one hand, I know they should have gotten the hint by this point, but with this wording, it helps prevent any lasting awkwardness by making it clear that it's nothing personal to them.

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