The typical scenario is as follows. I go into a store and ask a question. During the conversation, I need to show them that they actually do carry an item I'm inquiring about (or maybe that something does contain a substance they thought it didn't or such). It could also be me asking how to find an option or information in their app.

In each case, it contains the following elements:

  • some (partial, confusing or wrong) information is presented on my phone
  • I don't know how to proceed my task due to said information
  • they are expected to provide support, due to their professional role

Usually, they look at the screen and provide an explanation or express a surprise, leading to the next step (be that me leaving satisfying or them escalating the matter to a manager or second-line support). This is an expected and acceptable outcome.

On occasion, however, they get stuck too and, every now and then, start to touch my phone. I understand it's confusion combined with unfulfilled expectation about the contents on my screen that strikes them flabbergasted. One example would be following exchange:

Me: How do I get the nutrition information on this item?
Them: You look it up and it's right below the picture.

Me: I've found the item. There's nothing about carbs here.
[showing the phone]
Them: Mmmm... Maybe you should click on the image to get to deeper info.
[suspicion arises as they seem to alter the previous suggestion]

Me: Nope, that's not it. I've clicked on it and other places, too. I get to see the proteins and fats but not the carbs.
[possibly a few more rounds of unsuccessful maybe's and what-about's]

And here it comes. They start to lift the arm, extending their finger and want to click themselves. I understand the surprised frustration and the disappointed expectation of how things should work. I also get that one would question the observed phenomenon, leading to a trial by own hand (finger, to be exact). I also get - to some limited extent - that they may forget they have their own phone to try it on.

What I don't get is how to create a clear sense of the device being my personal belonging not supposed to be touched by others, unless explicitly requested to. I've tried to keep the phone inconveniently far from them while displaying the contents. I've tried to be very verbose about what I see on the screen to promote verbal interaction, excluding tactile aspect.

Finally, they reach for my phone and, as the last resort, I abruptly move it away from their reach. That creates the notion of heavy overstep, after which the interaction is damaged and best (and in many cases ends in infected and snorky cut-off). I don't get how to avoid it, as I'm dependent on their support.

I have twosome question.

  1. How to create a clear notion of boundaries regarding my phone while in an early stage of the interaction?
  2. How to avoid the fingering of my phone by a stranger while it's about to happen but in a way that is polite and not confronting?
  • 1
    Before current pandemic situation were you also unwilling to give handshakes? The unsanitary argument seems to apply even more for hands than phones. The answers may vary depending whether this is specific thing about phones/objects for you or whether it is a general aversion to germs/all contact.
    – BagiM
    Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 10:14
  • 2
    @BagiM It's not general aversion to germs. That part was just a side dish (although many people do consider that a big issue, hence me mentioning it). The specific grief is that, in my mind, it's like me telling you you've got something between your teeth and then, while you're fumbling not finding it, take a toothpick and try remove it for you (or at least lead your finger by my hand to it). Doesn't it seem inappropriate? To me, it's not a phone. It's my phone. Id est, not yours. I wonder humbly if I'm too sensitive and how to handle the situation politely. Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 10:21
  • Are you holding your phone within reach of the foreign fingers? Is it the touch itself, or the concern of messing up your data or apps that concerns you? Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 15:13
  • @YosefBaskin It's not fear of messing up the data or anything like that. I just feel it's weird and inappropriate to touch other people's phone without asking permission. Pretty much like someone commenting on your tie. If they start touching it, it's not the fear of them messing it up or staining it that's the problem. It's the invasion of touchiness onto a personal belonging of a stranger. Your comment and another one take a pragmatic angle to it - why not to touch. But I'm seeing it as the opposite - why should anyone touch? Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 23:23
  • 1
    Are you then sure that your body language is not undoing your wishes? Do you place your phone within reach and still wonder why people reach it? Have you tried saying Look, but don't touch, please? Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 12:30

1 Answer 1


A friend of mine which had a similar aversion had himself diagnosed and treated for minor OCD and I believe he handles the situation better now. Without saying you have OCD or that you should follow therapy, you should consider that, in the situation you describe:

  • It's very tempting for someone to touch your phone if you are showing something on it.
  • People try to do so in order to help you.
  • It's a socially accepted behavior to let professionals touch some of your belongings, think of people checking your ID card for example, or even medical staff touching you whenever required.

Despite the above, you consider it inappropriate: one will question where that feeling comes from and why it is causing you so such negative feelings when someone touches your phone. Obviously, the situation would be simpler if you complied to the norm.

Imagine a situation where it would have been helpful for someone to touch your phone, and you deny that request. What can that person think about your refusal? Try to put yourself in the shoes of your interlocutor:

  • Does this person think I will steal their phone?
  • Does this person think I will break their phone?
  • Does this person think I have bad hygiene?
  • Does this person think I will snoop on their data?
  • Does this person think I am unable to use a phone?

If you keep standing your ground where you would try to explain this refusal by rational thinking, while it truly is emotional, you risk to reinforce the feeling that you are hiding one of these negative, insulting reasons.

Regarding your first question, I admit I had few opportunities to realize my friend would not let anyone touch his phone simply because he kept it very private. Avoiding showing things on it delayed a lot the time I asked for permission to touch.

Regarding your second question, I would imagine that, once you have to deny authorization

  • Apologize for not letting them touch. If you admit that it's you, not them, you disarm the possible insulting implications. This is probably the most important.
  • Provide a reason that looks plausible and not insulting. I don't think there are many of these, but some people might be more creative than me in that area. You could stay vague and say "I don't like people touching my phone".
  • Move on smoothly. Start conversing where you stopped previously.
  • Very interesting angle. I will definitely consider it (once I've gained som distance to it, because right now I'm just too defensive, hehe). Prior to that, I'd like to eliminate the sensation of it's not me, it's not me in my brain, please assist me there. The thing I get stuck on is that telling me to click on an image is equally effective to trying to click it for me. In fact, since I'm already involved in the process of working with my phone and verbally requesting advice, it seem more natural to tell me, not override me. Now, I'd like to put that into a... Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 11:39
  • ...different context to see if your sentiment still holds. Suppose you're on the subway or another public space and your backpack feels like it's open, so you ask a stranger to take a peek to confirm. Would you consider it a normal, polite behavior if they tell you yupp, it's open? Of course! Now, would you consider it appropriate still if they start closing it without any mentioning of it? Well... perhaps... See the distinction? Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 11:45
  • 1
    @KonradViltersten People learn to touch way before they learn to speak. If someone wants you to click in the bottom left corner, the brain functions required to raise an arm and point it is less important than the ones to verbally describe the location.
    – Diane M
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 11:46
  • 1
    @KonradViltersten Boundaries are where you put them. Not universals. Some are conventions, though. If you consider your phone an inviolable boundary, fine, but most people don't feel it that way. I certainly don't feel touching my car is crossing boundary but many would feel so and that's fine.
    – Diane M
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 11:48
  • 2
    Yes, but you don't take your car to the mechanic and ask for their help with it but then ask them not to touch it/ask them to tell you how to use your wrench to fix it "because it's your car and them touching it would be weird". You don't say to the border control official "you can look at my passport but don't touch it". You don't say to the shop assistant "the tie you sold me is faulty, look at the stitching, but don't touch it until you give me a refund and then it's your tie once again". You are presenting the person with a problem contained/depicted within your phone and asking for help
    – Caius Jard
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 4:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.