Hail Captain! (And Awkwardeers)
I come to you with a question regarding boundaries and the ways to professionally enforce them. Some background: I’m a law student of a certain age (mid-30s) and a custodian to 2 cats (a black and a gray). Meaning that no matter what I wear, I’ve got some visible cat hair on all my outfits. After being a cat mom for 10 years, I’ve come to terms with it. Because honestly, my entire life (furniture, clothes, cars, to my casebooks) has some cat hair on it. And before anyone asks, yes I do try to curb the worst of it, but my cats are prodigious shedders. I can spend the minuscule bit of energy not devoted to school driving myself nuts about it, or I can just let it go and enjoy the fact my kiddos love me and want to be with me.
However, for my 22 year old cohort-mate, this is a way of life she can’t abide. This young lady feels extremely free to reach out and being removing cat hair from my person whenever she’s within arm’s reach. She does it in class, when I’m sitting beside her. She does it in casual conversation, when other people are present. I can only surmise she’s a “motherly” type, who thinks she’s helping. Or she’s got a thing about stray hairs that just makes her nuts. But Captain, as an introvert and adult woman, I don’t like it when someone who’s not the list of approved “touch me whenever you like” people touches me.
Captain, I’ve told her repeatedly to stop, that I don’t care if there’s cat hair, that I like it just fine, that maybe I want to take my babies with me all day! Her response is “It bothers me” as if that’s a valid excuse for breaching the sacred three foot bubble. Apparently she comes from a house of sisters, where this behavior is normal. Whereas I and my brothers outgrew the phase of just manhandling each other ten years ago. I want her to stop; I’ve told her to stop, but apparently what I want doesn’t much matter.
Captain, part of this program is hearing repeatedly that our professional community is very small, that we’re establishing our professional reputations, and that our behavior is being monitored. So making a scene isn’t an option I can take. I need some thoughts, or even a script on how to make a “professionally appropriate scene” to get this young woman to keep her hands to herself!
Any insights you can suggest would be appreciated,
Covered in Cat-hair
(she/her pronouns for both parties)
Dear Covered In Cat Hair:
True story: When I was in kindergarten I mayyyyyybe didn’t fully understand that other children were real and separate from me. There was a boy who sat in front of me who wore the most delightful velour shirts, and I liked to pet his back. I’d sit there, petting him, with a big smile on my face. It turns out that he was sitting there silently weeping because he hated being touched but didn’t know how to tell me not to. Fortunately for everyone, the teacher intervened and told me not to touch people’s velour shirts (or any kind of shirts, or any part of their bodies) without asking first. LESSON LEARNED. Your law-school-aged colleague can fucking well learn this, too.
You are both establishing your professional reputations right now. That means that she is on her way to establishing a professional reputation as someone who won’t stop touching a colleague even when told not to do it. That means that addressing this firmly – while she’s still a student – is absolutely the right thing to do.
I suggest that the next time she reaches for you, you catch her hands between yours, look her in the eye, and say “[NAME], DON’T TOUCH ME.” Say it clearly and loudly. You want her to startle her. You want to attract a little bit attention. I know it’s uncomfortable, but hopefully you will only have to do it once.
To make it a little easier:
- Practice with a friend ahead of time.
- If you can, tell/alert a trusted friend in your program that you’re going to do this ahead of time.
- Research your school’s harassment policy and complaint process. Hopefully you won’t need it, but it’s good to be informed.
- Document this and all other incidents you can think of.
She will act like you are the one making it weird. “Your cat hair bothers me!” “It’s how I was brought up!” “I just do it ’cause I like you, like a sister.” “I can’t help it!”
Say: “I don’t care why you do it. I have asked you not to touch me before. I am tired of asking. If you touch me again, I will make a formal complaint about it to the instructor/our program.”
If other people bug you about making a scene or try to blame you, keep repeating the facts: “[Colleague] won’t stop touching me. I’ve told her it bothers me and asked her to stop in every polite, discreet way I could think of and it didn’t work. If you’ve got suggestions for how to make this stop, I’m all ears!”
Hopefully the scene will be enough. If it’s not, report her ass.
We alllllllllllllll have to shed the idea that expecting someone not to touch us against our will in a professional setting is somehow unprofessional or rude or that it makes us “difficult” to work with. I think institutions love to have the “Now, don’t be difficult!” norm on their side so they don’t have to do anything when people act out except silence the victims of the behavior and hope they’ll go away. I also think it’s time to blow that norm and expectation right up, now and forever. People who can’t keep their hands to themselves are extremely difficult to work with. People who don’t like being manhandled are not the “difficult” ones.
To that end, if you report this and you get any pressure about being “more professional” (i.e. “quiet”) or “needing to get along with people better” from instructors or your program, I want you to say something like this:
“I realize that we are building our professional reputations and that part of school is learning to collaborate with others. My colleague is touching me without permission and continuing to do so even when she knows that the touch is unwanted. This makes her a poor collaborator. I need her invasive behavior to stop immediately so that I can focus on the work. I have tried addressing it directly and discreetly more than once and she has not stopped. I can’t help but think that this behavior will damage her professional reputation if it continues. I want [her instructors][the program] to be aware so that they can help her understand that this is not okay before she brings this behavior into the workplace.”
I realize that’s a mouthful, so maybe also try: “Wait, are you asking me to be quiet and let her keep touching me? That can’t be right.” Or “Since telling her directly has failed, what would you suggest as a next step?”
If they say that it is not sexual so it doesn’t matter, refute that bluntly. “It doesn’t have to be sexual in intent to be violating and distracting. Her intent doesn’t matter. I expect her to stop touching me from this moment forward, and I expect the program to back me up/enforce the rules/make it clear to her that her behavior is unacceptable.”
Keep the focus on her reputation, her poor behavior, her poor understanding of norms, etc. You are giving them an opportunity to rectify a situation before it becomes worse. Oh, and document the hell out of these conversations.
In short, it’s okay to make a fuss about this! She needs to keep her hands to herself, and if kindergarten-university and her family failed her, there’s no time like the present to learn that lesson.