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On workplace touching, and what women don’t want

I don’t want you to hug me in the office. In fact, unless we’re pretty damned close, I don’t want you to hug me at all.

I’ve been called ‘standoffish’ because I’m not the sort of person who responds well to being hugged. I dread that bit at the end of parties, where everyone’s just pissed enough to think they’re better friends than they actually are, and some person I’ve spent about twenty minutes chatting to screeches “Byeeee darling, it was amaaazing to meet you” before forcing me into an awkward cuddle.

Maybe this makes me odd, but I don’t actually care. Whether my aversion to being grabbed by random acquaintances is odd or not, you need to respect that. And I mean respect it properly, not just acknowledge and then ignore it. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me:

“I know you don’t like hugs so I’ll just do it really quickly.” or even “Hey, come on, it’s only me. Gizza hug.”

I don’t want to. I’ll do it if you make me, but I’ll hate it, and I’ll resent you for thinking that our acquaintance counts for nothing if I’m not willing to awkwardly squash my chest against you at the end of a night out.

Back to the office.

The rules about touching your coworkers

You don’t need to be told not to rock up late for an interview to know that being late for an interview is a bad thing. Likewise, you don’t need to be told that stroking a colleague’s thigh, patting them on the arse, or putting your arms around them might make them a tad uncomfortable.

I’m writing this blog as a plea for common sense. Because since the ex-chief-exec of the Lib Dems has been accused of inappropriate workplace touching (an accusation which, for legal reasons, I shall point out he has denied) there’s been a lot of bullshit spoken about how difficult it is to know when a touch is inappropriate. A few guys have plaintively cried for guidance.

“But how do we know?” they say. “How can I possibly tell whether one of my work colleagues wants me to touch her, or whether she’ll be offended?”

The answer to this question is: you don’t, unless she expressly tells you. At no point during the working day can you be 100% certain that a female colleague wants you to touch her. Whether she’s in the middle of an email, chairing a strategy meeting or – like me – trying to inch her way closer to the biscuit plate during a particularly long PowerPoint presentation. It’s not like a green light goes off over her head if she fancies you and is up for a quick squeeze.

But, and I cannot possibly stress this enough, the fact that you don’t know is inconsequential. You hardly know anything, none of us do. The boundaries of our knowledge are tiny and the realm of the unknown is vast. Yet somehow most of us manage to get through every day without sexually harassing random members of the opposite sex. We’re not special, we don’t have knowledge that you don’t, and nor are we telepaths; we’re just not arseholes.

To use the ‘we can’t possibly know’ defence for any kind of inappropriate touching, whether inside or outside the workplace, is the largest pile of bullshit I have ever scrolled angrily past on the internet.

The impenetrable mysteries of how not to be a creep

We don’t go through life understanding exactly what other people want from us at all times. Sometimes we take risks, and do things that might get us into trouble, and other times we are cautious. The key thing is to assess whether a risk is worth taking – not just for you, but for the object of your affection as well.

That girl sitting at the bar might reject you, or burst into tears if you go and chat to her. But the risk of these things is minimal, and you’d be unlikely to offend or harm her by saying ‘hello.’ So you don’t grab her arse. You don’t call her ‘babes’. You don’t shout ‘OI OI!’ from the other side of the room. Because all of these things are high-risk, potentially high-harm situations. So you just say fucking ‘Hi.’

Likewise, you don’t offer to spank a woman on a first date. You try and ease the conversation round to spanking, in a non-threatening way, to see if she might be up for it. You don’t grab a girl’s arse on the tube. You talk to her, try to work out if she fancies you, talk to her some more, and then ask for her number if you get the right signals.

In any of these situations you might fuck up – go in for a kiss at the bar and watch as she leans away and says ‘I’m sorry, I’m not that into you.’ Bring up spanking and have her tell you you’re not her type. And this is fine – these mistakes, while embarrassing, don’t actually cause any harm.

Whereas if you just go up to a girl, grab her tits and then cry ‘how was I supposed to know?!’ when she runs for the hills, then you are a stupid, stupid cunt.

To err is human, but to pretend that women are so complex that you can’t even try to empathise? That’s pathetic.

Work is a non-contact sport

In my ideal world no one ever touches work colleagues. But that’s because I am ‘standoffish’, and would rather find my fun outside a building in which I’m supposed to act like a professional. I wouldn’t ban workplace touching, because I’ve witnessed office romances that have worked. At some point during the blossoming of that relationship someone laid a hand on someone else’s knee, or leant in for a kiss at a Christmas party, and took a small calculated risk.

But you know what? That successful person, who ended up marrying their office sweetheart and living happily ever after? That was almost certainly the person who held back, who waited, who had enough respect for their colleague not to gamble on a fumble before they could be sure the touch was wanted.

The successful person was patient, respectful and empathetic. He certainly wasn’t the kind of twat who’d jump on a woman in the stationery cupboard, get sacked, and then whine about how unfair life is, and how hard things are, and how he’ll never understand just what these fickle women want.


  • John says:

    I’m quite a tactile person but I can understand why people don’t like it.
    In terms of the office no way. Certainly never in a sexual way and only in a friendly way if someone had done it to me first – by that I mean a hand on an arm or shoulder nothing “special area”.
    Even as a tactile person even I don’t like it if certain people do it, but it’s OK if other people do it. I think it boils down to if I think there might be anything threatening about it. Not dangerous, just not quite right in some way.
    That kind of ambiguity might be why people…ok men are “confused”, but it goes back to the “nice guys” post. You don’t deserve or earn the right to do something, it’s the other person’s choice. Then there’s just plain perverts who do it because of whatever imagined reason they convince themselves of.
    I do think lack of empathy is a big problem in a lot of areas of social interaction and when coupled -with what seems to me – an increase in the number of people with a huge ego it’s only going to get worse.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Agreed on the ‘lack of empathy’ thing. It really bugs me, although I know I am certainly guilty of it quite often (such as when rushing through a commuter station unable to understand why it takes people so long to do their oyster cards). I think it’d do us all the world of good to be a bit more empathetic.

  • zandegola says:

    Brilliant post. I really like the “non-contact sport” line. As you say, there has been a quite astonishing amount of guff talked about this recently, often by men determined to come off as well-meaning. “But what about a friendly pat?” Or, “If it happened to me I’d be flattered!” And, with grim inevitability, “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

    Slightly off the point, but worth saying anyway: in Italy, hugging is something quite intimate. Loved ones are hugged, not acquaintances. You greet people or take your leave from them with a kiss on each cheek, not a mutually reluctant torso-to-torso back-pat. I approve of this.

    And also, for pedantry’s sake, I should mention that Rennard was not leader of the Lib Dems, but their chief executive. As you were.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ooh, good spot. My brain is clearly leaking. I’m going to edit it in the post so I don’t look so immediately wrong, but will leave this conversation here so that if people care to look beneath my arrogant veneer, they’ll see the inevitable disappointing flaws beneath.

    • Ash says:

      I believe the usage of the phrase “political correctness gone mad” should be punishable by being paraded in stocks in a neighbourhood full of women/gays/ethnics for a day and letting everyone throw tomatoes at the perp.

      • Girl on the net says:

        In the stocks being pelted with tomatoes? The Health and Safety gone Broken Britain Brigade won’t approve of that…

    • Caramella says:

      The funny thing about when [some] men say “I’d be flattered if it happened to me!” is that it’s absolute bullshit – if another man touched them in a sexual manner, I don’t believe their first reaction would be flattery.

  • Ash says:

    I met the last GF through our crappy pizza job. At first she wasn’t interested/actively disliked me but after I wore her down/wound her up relentlessly (which included slapping her butt with a hot bag every time I returned from a delivery) she eventually had angry sex with me out of sheer irritation. Magic can not be bottled up when that happens (plus, I have the biggest cock she’s ever seen) but and we went out for a whole year.

    However, this was my specific experience that I would not suggest to anyone. Not even if you work in an environment full of horny and legal teenage girls like I did.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Something about this is a bit disturbing, although it’s possibly just the bravado with which you tell the tale. You ‘wound her up’ unto she had sex with you out of irritation? This makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, but obviously I can’t judge as I wasn’t there. If she was actively enjoying and joining in with workplace flirtation, I’m totally with you. But I’ve had people tease/wind me up before in the hope that I’ll eventually ‘give in’ and fuck them, and usually my response has been to tell them to cock off. Doing this to someone who is a bit shy/nervous/scared of offending you could lead to a horrible situation where they’re awkwardly feeling like they have to just grin and bear your arse slaps.

  • Matt says:

    I have never quite understood how “women are people” is such a radical concept. Or, for that matter, “everyone has different experiences”, though that one possibly requires just the tiniest smidge of empathy where the former is blindingly obvious.

    Once you have those two down it’s quite easy to see that perhaps a woman’s experience of being unwelcomely felt up by randoms in what was supposed to be a safe environment is a little different to how a dude who has never been at any great risk of such might think he’d feel about it.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I think your second paragraph really concisely nails the general ickiness of guys who say ‘I’d be totally flattered!’ – thanks!

  • Matt says:

    Oh, and on the workplace romantic advance thing: I have been tempted numerous times, as somehow I’ve lucked in to working with a fair number of smart competent women (these are very much among my interests) but honestly, if I like her enough to want to go there then I already like her too much to feel at all okay about making the workplace uncomfortable for her, so…

  • NYC Native says:

    I could not agree more… I have a related dilemma though with which maybe you could help:
    There is one very attractive girl in my office (I say “girl” because she is about 26 or 27 and I am just 29 so we are like the kids of the office) and we are friendly. I chat at her desk and she come to mine to chat. I am in a relationship as is she (she is actually dating a girl but is bi) so there is very little temptation on both sides however when I stop by her desk to talk whether for personal or professional reasons, 9 time out of 10 her shirt is very low cut and she has a tendency to lean forward and I have an amazing view of her breasts. I always look away when it happens but then I end up have a conversation with my head completely turned and it gets very awkward. I try and keep the focus on her eyes but I still see down her shirt and if I keep very hard focus on her eyes (which also happen to be pretty amazing) that gets awkward too. I have tried standing on another side or further away but no matter what I try, they view is always there. A couple of days ago she actually had to adjust her bra as we were talking and I had a prolonged shot of her nipples as we discussed marketing. Short of not talking to her at her desk or telling her to lift her shirt… What should I do?
    As I am typing this, I am actually thinking “does she want me to see?”… Should this be my greatest problem?!?!

    • Girl on the net says:

      OK, I think the easiest way to view this situation is to take out all of your lust – turn it into someone you don’t fancy. Now. If this person you don’t fancy (whose breasts don’t provide such an ‘amazing view’) were to do this, would you be wondering if you should act on it?

      It seems to me there are two possibilities:

      a) she is deliberately showing you her tits in order to make you uncomfortable. This seems unlikely but if it’s the case you should either have a quiet word, explain that it makes you uncomfortable, and ask her to stop, or tell someone at work that you’re being made to feel uncomfortable. This is what I’d do if a guy (even a guy I fancied) stood next to my desk with an obvious erection.

      b) she isn’t doing it deliberately, but you’re fixating on her breasts and fantasising about it because the idea of it seems nice to you. If this is the case, which seems much more likely given what you’ve said, you need to calm down and focus on work rather than on her tits. She isn’t obliged to dress or behave differently just because you like her tits and can’t stop thinking about them. And, realistically, the vast majority of us manage to get on OK with work, even if we fancy someone, without being unable to talk to attractive colleagues.

      I don’t mean to sound flippant, and I appreciate that this is tricky for you (or you wouldn’t have asked) but honestly it sounds like you feel like your fascination with her tits is in some way her fault. Unless she’s getting them out in the office, or flashing them at you deliberately, it’s not.

      • John says:

        From a completely practical point of view, when you stop by her desk to chat are you stood up or sat down? If you’re stood over her then quite naturally you’re going to see more cleavage than you would if you were at eye level. Sit down and the “problem” probably goes away unless she’s lying down on the desk.

        I agree totally with GOTN on the situation breakdown but I’d say bra-rummaging as you described it is inappropriate. I’m appalled if someone in the office – man or woman – started re-arranging their underwear in front of me. It’s just bad manners. To be fair I’ve never seen a woman doing that but I work in a male-dominated I.T. workplace environment a.k.a. “sausage fest” so it’s usually just revolting men re-arranging their junk.

        Re the cleavage. It’s easy to turn these things into something in your own mind that isn’t true – especially in the boredom of office life. See “Indiana Jones and the Doomed Office Romance” on the old “TV Go Home” website for details.

        • Dove says:

          I used to work in an office full of (predominantly young, Christian) men. As a woman of ample cleavage, I noticed the days when my top was too low cut, because every one would be very very pointedly talking to my face (after a quick glance down). Fear of looking at my breasts made them more uncomfortable than if I caught them looking.

          The person who made me feel most comfortable was the one who actually would mention it to me – as if I were a human being and boobs are a completely normal thing to have (shock!)

          As an aside, my female friends also stare – it seems cleavage is difficult to ignore. But again, they are more likely to say “by the way, your tits look great today!”

          Boobs are amazing – but also entirely normal. Try not to obsess too much! Chances are she isn’t ‘wanting’ you to see and she must have noticed you looking/not looking. Don’t read too much into it – if she’s readjusting in front of you, that probably just means she’s comfortable with you.

  • drsnooks says:

    I am that guy who ended up marrying a colleague and living happily ever after (well, for the ten years since, at least :) but a large part of that happiness comes from us recognizing that while we still worked together it was awkward as hell. The golden rule after the first few months has always been that we don’t work together. Mixing work and sex lives just means you make a mess of both

  • “To err is human, but to pretend that women are so complex that you can’t even try to empathise? That’s pathetic.”
    My favorite part, and the one that is so obvious, and yet it’s a track stuck on repeat to excuse those behaviors or decisions.

  • Remember being called a “feminist lesbian” by a workplace sleaze with roaming octopus hands who tried to hug me a few years back. The last-ditch insult of the insecure man, I find. Pardon me for refusing :o Like you said, GotN, cool guys just say, “Hi”, they don’t need to do anything else.

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