Full disclosure: While visiting Consulate General Jerusalem in 2011, Vice President Biden heard it was my birthday and then kissed me on the cheek. At the time, it was weird. At times, it was a cool story to tell, but it remains weird.
“Why didn’t she say something?” “She should have said, ‘don’t touch me.’” “We need to have a conversation.” These are all common responses to women who have shared their uncomfortable interactions with a variety of powerful men – including Vice President Joe Biden. Look closely at them. Note how all of them place an obligation on the target of the questionable behavior and never on the person engaging in that behavior.
That is why these responses are flat-out wrong.
I get the argument for the responses. How is someone supposed to know that their behavior is inappropriate if no one tells them? Are we expecting everyone to be a walking encyclopedia (or Wikipedia for you youngsters) of cultural norms? Most certainly not. That said, you do need to use some emotional intelligence and plain-ole common sense and treat everyone with respect.
Emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Being aware of other people would suggest that when you’re going in for the hug, you see the look of panic on the individual’s face. Controlling your own emotions means you don’t kiss a colleague when you successfully complete a project because we don’t kiss in the workplace. Handling interpersonal relationships judiciously is understanding that not everyone is a hugger.
Common sense – albeit rare contrary to the very term itself – is defined by being aware of social norms and how they change. Yes, #metoo has changes our cultural norms. But the movement hasn’t changed all social norms. Some are still not understood by all. The way to know what those social norms are is by being aware of what happens culturally. Read or watch the news. Read a book. Watch the news. Meet with friends and family. This is how cultural norms are formed and learned.
The target of the inappropriate behavior is doing her or his own calculus. If I say something here, how will the person respond? Is it worth sticking my neck out to say “what you did made me feel uncomfortable”? Doing this mental calculus quickly often results in saying nothing because of ease, expediency, and social respect. Remember saying something always has a cost. I knew that stopping the Vice President to tell him that he shouldn’t kiss people would be awkward and potentially off-putting for a visit already fraught with political tight-rope walking, so my calculus was to not say something.
Instead of putting the target in the crosshairs, we should focus on our own behavior. For this, the most important thing is to lead with respect; respect of the personal autonomy and beliefs of the people you encounter. In some cases, it would be inappropriate for a woman to touch a religious man, so when I reach out for a handshake, I might receive a polite bow in response. I am certainly not offended by his decision to stay true to his faith. And, because I am conforming to a social norm by reaching for a handshake, he is unlikely to be offended by my gesture as well.
One thing I’m leery of is prohibiting touching all together. If we tell everyone to stop touching, aren’t we turning into robots? I’ve got some do’s and don’ts on hugging and kissing:
- Do know the person you may want to touch before you do it. When you know someone – even if you’ve only interacted online – a hug may be a totally appropriate greeting. But that’s only because you know them. People give you clues on whether it is okay to touch. A stranger? No hug and definitely no kiss. By the end of your meeting, it may be okay to hug goodbye. The only time to kiss goodbye is at the end of a date (and maybe not on the first date).
- Do understand that people are all different and people may feel differently day-by-day. Some people will never hug. Others may hug all the time. Some will hug occasionally. Just like we all process grief differently, we all process hugs in different ways on any given day. A hugger might be having a bad day and the last thing he wants to do is hug. Be open to this possibility and watch for the clues your emotional intelligence is picking up on.
- Don’t assume you can touch everyone because you’re powerful. It is simply not true that “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” You may be more likely to get away with it because of the power dynamic at play, but no one forgets when someone famous inappropriately touches them. In fact, if you are in a position of power, like a manager, leader, or “influencer,” it may be appropriate to dial down your normal behavior to hug knowing that others may be made even more uncomfortable because of your status.
- Don’t kiss at work. Not even if your significant other comes to the office. It’s weird. (One exception, if you’re in a foreign country and it is socially acceptable to air kiss upon meeting. Please note the air kiss – no lip contact required. No lip contact.)
During a recent respectful workplace training, I was asked for the line. “When does conduct cross the line?” As I told the gentlemen, I wish I had the answer. If there was a black/white line, it would be easier for all of us. However, people have always made things gray and squishy. It will take our smarts and our hearts to continue to learn about people and make appropriate decisions.