Reader question #41: I’m sorry I keep touching that lady.

I am a straight married man who plays on a coed softball team.  There is a woman on the team who is very nice and friendly and we stand around talking often.  Unfortunately I have a habit, especially when the conversation gets a bit animated, of reaching out and touching people on the arm or shoulder in punctuation of things I say.  This usually isn’t a problem (in fact to be honest until recently I didn’t really know I had this habit) but this woman gives out VERY clear signals that she does not like to be touched – blocking my hand, shaking her head no, etc. 

I’ve come to be much more careful of this with her, and I’m getting better.  But invariably I slip and catch myself doing it.  Obviously this is my problem and not hers.  However, I’m wondering whether it would make sense to simply say to her “look, I know that it makes you uncomfortable when I put my hand on you when I’m talking, and I’m trying to stop, it’s just hard for me to break this habit.”  Saying that sounds like the most awkward fucking thing I can imagine, and when I think about her hearing it, I think it would put her in a really strange position where she would either have to say “yeah, I really hate that you do that, please get better at stopping” or “no, no, it’s fine!” (when it’s clearly not fine.)

So I guess I’m saying my instinct is to keep trying to stop this behavior and not to mention it to her, but I’m also questioning my instincts.  What do you think?

Touchy Teammate

Dear Touchy,

A quick easy question, thank you!

Good for you for noticing her body language and for figuring out that you are a Gregarious Toucher and working on the problem.

True story:  When I was in kindergarten there was a boy who always wore velour pullovers to school and I used to chase him around and pet him until he cried and the school had to have a talk with my mother.  If I can change, so can you!

Good for you for recognizing that it’s on you to fix the problem and that the best thing you can do is just stop the behavior.  Stand a little further away from her from now on, and maybe wear a rubber band on your wrist like my grandma used to do when she needed to remember something or break a habit.

And it’s worth bringing up, like so many things at Captain Awkward Dot Com, in the moment.   Next time you catch yourself reaching out toward her, stop it, and say, “I’m so sorry to make you uncomfortable, that’s a terrible habit of mine.  I’m really working on it, and I appreciate how patient you’ve been with me.”  Snap that rubber band against your wrist if you need a little reminder.  Delete the “It’s just hard for me” sentence.  Your instinct is right that that’s not working.  It’s because how hard it is for you is not her problem, so that’s the part of your script that puts her in the position of maybe feeling like she has to say “Oh no, it’s fine.”  We missed Blanket Statement Monday this week (which I’m thinking about re-naming Captain Obvious Monday…thoughts?) but I feel comfortable making a brief blanket statement here and now:

When apologizing to someone, do not try to get them to feel sorry for you.

That’s not really about you, Touchy – just something that’s a peeve of mine in general – but that’s why that part of your statement was sitting so well.  You knew it, though, so we’re good.

You might also ask your wife to gently break it to you if you have other endearing/annoying gregarious habits.  It might be painful to find out that you are also The Guy Who Makes People High-Five Him or The Guy Who Overuses Finger Guns (though those are preferable to unwanted touching, and may be a way to recover, if you reach out and then catch yourself…oooooooh…Finger Guns!)  And you might also have to check your assumption that the touching is usually not a problem, especially if you are the boss at work and you like to give employees that encouraging pat on the arm or if you’ve ever walked up behind someone and just launched into a backrub (not good).

12 thoughts on “Reader question #41: I’m sorry I keep touching that lady.

  1. i don’t know about her, but i wouldn’t find it awkward, i would find it endearing. in general? people who know you’re a non-toucher really like to pretend it’s funny and take invading your space to a whole. new. level.

    kudos to you!

  2. A zillion million vigorous nods on omitting the “it’s just hard for me” part.

    TT, is there some natural position you can hold your hands while talking, where they can touch something? (Besides your conversational partner. *G*) I’m thinking one hand on the other wrist behind your back, or hands in pockets, or even thumbs through your belt loops if you’re from Texas. Something so that when your hand automatically shoots out in enthusiasm, you have a better chance of noticing than if it were just waving around in the air to begin with.

    (Plus I think it’s easier on your brain to do a quick check on what you’re doing now– “hands are in pockets, doing great!”– rather than, “okay, remember, don’t touch her in the future!”.)

  3. I think saying something is a good idea — speaking only for myself, the main reason getting little arm touches from some guy I barely know (especially a married one) would be disturbing is that they seem like a come-on, or like a guy who doesn’t respect my right to decide who touches me. Hearing that it is the guy’s personal tic, he knows it, and he’s working on it would make a big difference (as long as I could tell he really was trying). Perhaps, to say why he hasn’t just stopped, without making her feel bad for him, having said “I’m really trying to stop casually touching people I’m talking to,” he could just say ruefully “It’s obviously a work in progress.”

    The other thing to think about, though: does he really do this with everyone? Or just women? Especially one he finds attractive, even if he knows they are off limits because of his relationship status and/or theirs? Because if that’s how it is, he needs to understand that he really is being a creep. He needs to look himself in the eye, realize how yukky that is, and stop kidding himself that it is the harmless quirk of a gregarious, demonstrative guy.

  4. I emphasize with TT because I have a very small personal space bubble which means I often stand closer to people than their personal space bubble warrants.

    Being from a family of touchy, gregarious folks, I never really noticed this until late in my high school career when I had a school mate whose personal space bubble felt like a football field between us.

    It was difficult for me to remember not to stand so close to her (and to better judge other people’s cues on whether I was too close) especially since it highlighted how much I was relying on closeness to offset my hearing difficulties. But I did figure it out and now it’s one less thing I have to watch for when I meet new people. So I wish TT all the luck in breaking this habit!

  5. I would just like to say that I own that Natalie Dee t-shirt. Having said that, I think it’s safe to say I’m not as touchy (err, sorry) about being touched as is the lady in question.

  6. Offtopic (sorry): Can someone please link me to the website of that comic? Thanks!

  7. Well, thanks both to CaptainAwkward and to the commenters. Some good stuff to think about.

    For the record, I’m not Sudden Backrub Guy or Finger-Guns Guy or Awkward-High-Five Guy. I do say “dude” too much, which I know is douchey. Nobody’s perfect. I never say “bro” or “brah” though, and I don’t refer to women as “females.”

    Like someone said above, a work in progress!

  8. And now I’m self-conscious, too. I make people high-five me at work, sometimes, when we’ve achieved something, for morale. Is that bad?

  9. I’m something of a toucher/fidgety person, myself, so I have to be careful when I’m with people who aren’t touchy-feely. It can be tough, but it is possible. My recommendation is the same one they tell people in interviews – busy your hands with something else while you talk. I have a tendency to fold my arms when I do it (though, be warned, this can sometimes come across as foreboding to some people – they feel like you’re getting impatient or you’re disinterested). Some people clasp their hands together or twiddle their thumbs. Sometimes I rub my forefinger against my thumb’s knuckle – it’s more subtle and unnoticeable. Whatever you do, though, kudos to you for being willing to change it.

    Also, this –

    When apologizing to someone, do not try to get them to feel sorry for you.

    -is awesome advice. I admit this used to be one of my absolute worst flaws, back when I was more passive and had trouble articulating what I wanted. I still slip into it sometimes, but I’ve gotten better at catching it, and I find the end result is that you become more responsible over all. It doesn’t help the situation at all – it just either upsets the other person or pisses them off for making you feel like they did something wrong.

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