Thursday, November 13, 2008

No Touching

So this is a subject I’ve been thinking about almost the whole time I’ve had my new job.

And before you get nervous, this is entirely PG. Its not good touch bad touch. That is my house mates job over at DC Rape Crisis Center.

What I’m interested in is participants wanting to hug me, pat my arm and shake my hand.

And I should preface this by saying that in my personal life, I’m pretty physically affectionate. I love hugs and cuddling. In fact one Miss Kate Stone even told me once, “Char, I think your only boundary is clothing.” Which might be some degree of true.

Practically, what this means is that I need to find my boundaries and comfort zone at work. I’ve never really had a job before where physical contact was an issue. People don’t really try to touch you when you scoop them ice cream or check out books to them at the Puget Sound library. Although I always giggled when someone asked me if I wanted to “check them out.”

So it was surprising to me on my second week of casework when a participant reached out and toughed my side. He was making a point and touched me to emphasize it. I was shocked when I had an involuntary, almost visceral, negative reaction. It was all I could do to keep from jumping back. And I did step back gently and discourage him from hugging me. This particular program participant is someone I struggle with. In this same conversation he told my coworker that “I needed to be trained up better.”

To illustrate my point abut physical contact I have to say that the evening after this happened, I was standing in the doorway of my kitchen talking to my housemate Rachel about the incident and why my gut reaction had been so negative. And my housemate, Noah, walked up mid conversation and rested his elbow on my shoulder as a form of greeting. Also I might have been blocking the doorway. He had been doing dishes and had no idea that we had been talking about “touching” when he came up and touched me. So clearly it is not all touching that upsets me.

I have another program participant, a young woman, who initiates a hug me every time she comes in and this is fine.

I had some training at some point, maybe when I was an orientation leader, that taught me that when in a position of power, you should always let your “subordinate” (for lack of a better word) set the rules about physical contact. Such as, don’t touch a student’s arm unless they have already established some form of contact. You can never know what someone's comfort level is.

So I’ve been basically following my own rule with participants. I don’t touch them at all unless they initiate it. And if I am at all uncomfortable being touched, I don’t allow it. I even refused to shake one mans hand when he made it into a power play. And I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in a position where you had to turn down a handshake, but it is truly uncomfortable. And awkward.
So here I''ll end the ramble about touching from the queen of both awkward situations and cuddling. I'm not sure I've yet to answer this issue, but it is interesting to explore.

1 comment:

rls in Louisville said...

Hey, I found your page! It's fun to experience some of your adventures via my own little computer.

Your comments in this entry make me wonder if you have spent much time in communities with a large percentage of poor people or with large percentages of people of color. If not, it might just be the cultural difference of that along with the difference of the West Coast East Coast divide.

As to the East Coast/West Coast issue, we have felt that keenly here in Louisville. Even now thirty years after moving from California, we sometimes look at the differences in attitudes with a state of wonderment. Although Louisville is more Midwest/South than East Coast, it shares some of the same viewpoints with the East as well as the eastern times zone. It is interesting to experience how different we can be from region to region in this country.