#1080: “Telling a classmate to keep their hands to themselves.”

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.

279 thoughts on “#1080: “Telling a classmate to keep their hands to themselves.”

  1. Yes yes yes.

    If this had just started and the LW was looking for a first response, I would suggest escalating the startle to a jump and a shout and a horrified look, because for many people that’s enough of a message that the touchee finds it inappropriate and unwelcome. (Usually I get it from people who think they are doing me a favour by hitting mosquitoes on me.) But this has gone past any kind of polite or indirect responses and I agree with the Captain.

    1. Agreed. A former co-worker lovingly stroked my arm while I was working, and I was so startled I nearly jumped from my chair. She gave me a speech about how she felt like she was my mother (I was in my late twenties and, to this day, look *very* young for my age), but I wasn’t mollified.

      When I brought it up with the higher-ups a week or two later, I was glad to see they took it seriously, even calling it inappropriate.

      1. When I was in high school, there was an – like an aid? We had two kids with disabilities in our classes, and they each had someone who went about the day with them to help them out and everything. And one of them, who again, was supposed to focus on this kid to help him, really liked to walk up behind you and just put her hands on your shoulders while talking to you, and it bugged the *crud* out of me.

        I just always got super tense. Wish I had made noise!

        1. Oh, my god, I wonder if she was also doing that to the kids she was meant to be supporting? What if one of them had autism or another sensory disability and was freaked by touch?

          (Not that it was at all OK anyway, but that just makes it even worse…

          1. The kid who she helped DID have autism, actually. I left it out because I didn’t wanna info dump too much, but when he first started in our class, they told us that he didn’t like being touched and would lash out if he was bumped unexpectedly or whatever (so we should be careful, and he would not get in trouble for things like that).

            The petty part of me kind of hopes she got punched at least once.

        2. Aaaaargh, sympathies. That sounds rough. My teen years had me flinching whenever someone tried to touch me from behind (either gently pushing or shoving), and I can’t stand it to this day.

          Which reminds me of yet another story, where I was with a bunch of JET colleagues in a crowded train station in Tokyo, and someone thought it would be BRILLIANT to push me toward a turnstile, and was surprised when I cried out and got upset. FFS.

        3. One time I was going through a fire door in a stairwell, heard footsteps behind me, and automatically stopped to hold the door for the person behind me. It was a giant, metal-core, very heavy, wood door, so I had a habit when the stairwell wasn’t crowded of turning around and using myself as a human doorstep for whoever was coming behind me until they had passed. I wasn’t the only one who did this as a routine thing.

          Deep in thought, I didn’t really notice who it was until I found myself grabbed and side-hugged by someone who turned out to be the geometry teacher. He gave me repeated squeezes with the grabbing arm while making a fatherly (if your father is a condescending jerk) little speech about how that was so considerate and unusual and he really appreciated it, while I hunched up in horror and tried to pull away.

          There’s no way he didn’t know that was a thousand times wrong. I suppose it’s possible he was trying to make a more positive connection with me than we had in class, where I despised him as an intellectually lazy bigot and all-around bad math teacher. But good heavens, it’s not like men don’t know to refrain from going around grabbing teenage girls.

          1. Are we all now fantasizing about mashing him with the heavy door? Because I definitely am and I don’t want to be the only one.

          2. My inner 16-year-old is very glad of the validation — thank you all.

            The consent discussions all over the internet lately keep showing up this same pattern as this incident (though this one was not sexual, I hope):

            Dude violates consent. Dude both feels great about it, and simultaneously feels great about being the kind of guy who would never do that. Because as long as Dude can make up a story, any story, that lets him feel good about his current instance of violating consent, he will happily go ahead with violating consent and even pre-plan and premeditate it and feel great about what a swell guy he is the whole time.

            Which means he is heavily invested in making sure to feel no empathy for his victim and in making sure not to consider her perspective for even a second. He’s got to make that internal story come out right so he can feel great about going ahead with violating someone while also feeling great about not being a person who would do that. And to do that, to make the story come out right, he has to interpret at least some of her communications into something that makes no sense based on what she is actually saying/doing. As their opposites, in fact.

            So frantic, “I don’t want to!”‘s become cute and fetching little good-girl protests that she doesn’t mean and her adorable way of indicating she doesn’t just want what’s happening now, she wants more of it, a relationship. “I don’t want to do this,” becomes, oh, how cute, she wants to pretend she’s not the kind of girl who would go straight for PIV on the first date, even though she plainly is (because he says so), so toss her a second drink and say that’s the second date while you see how many non-consensual penetrations of her body you can rack up in 15 minutes or less.

            And that teenage student’s look of horror is actually her blushing charmingly in delight over being praised by the teacher she adores! And her attempts to get away are her snuggling into the hugs delightedly.

      2. I’m always baffled by how many older women pull that “mother” stuff in the workplace. I have a college-age daughter who’s only a few years younger than some of the recent grads in my office, and I’ve never felt the slightest compulsion to treat any of them as if they’re my children (and especially not to lovingly stroke them). Hell, I’m trying to break myself even of treating my own child as a child–I reminded her to wear a coat yesterday because it was cold outside, but old habits die hard.

        1. Yeah, that particular co-worker liked to say she felt like she was my mother a *lot*, which skeeved me out, since she managed to make a very bad impression on me in two days and also managed to alienate 90% of my co-workers shortly after.

          Ha, I’m in my thirties and my mom often reminds me to do stuff.

          1. I have shorthand with my mother when the reminders (especially about coats and stuff) gets too much: “Mom, remember. Just because mommy is cold doesn’t mean baby is cold.”

        2. People who are into assault and other dominance games seize on the lines of power and cultural narratives available to them. Men like Al Franken and Donald Trump charge at women they find attractive and paste wet sloppy kisses on them without permission. That worked out great for both of them for years, decades even, and still mostly does.

          Women who are creepy and into assault have to use different lines of power and different narratives, but they still do it. The “allomother” thing is a favorite go-to because it works often enough for them.

          1. I think you’re right, Helen. This isn’t about being the touchee’s “mother” – it’s about the toucher making the point that she is the alpha female, but throwing in all the “mother” stuff in an attempt to look like a nice person while she’s doing it.

          2. Planegirl, yup, I’ve even seen a few who use their small children as a way to exert dominance and the right to touch strangers or whoever else they’re after — they aim their kid at you in some way or another.

            I even ran across one who was really into teaching her little boy to crawl under women’s dressing room doors. She got really pissy when called out on it, of course.

            Creepy assault-y people will go after what they think they can get away with. It was actually rather nice of our only Prezzie to articulate that for us so clearly. /flames of sarcasm

          3. Given what I know of my former co-worker and her behavior during my time at old!job, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a power play going on. I might have been way younger than she was, but I was her senior at work, and I don’t think she liked that very much at all, especially since I was the one training her.

          4. codenameminali, yes, that was purely about trying to assert dominance over you and trying to belittle you. You’re a child you see, compared to her, just a little bitty thing who thinks it’s so cute to run home from kindergarten to explain to mommy all the things your cute little mind learned! Can’t you see she’s soooo sweet to indulge you? /ick

            Extra funny if you tower over her, like in the TV Game of Thrones where people keep calling Sansa “little” while she towers over them. Brienne is a lot more scary, so with her they go straight to threats of gang rape.

          5. @Helen Huntingdon: if only. I think we were the same height. Although my mother was around her age, which didn’t help much. I think she was trying to wear me down, but all I saw was boundary violations (like moving my stuff, calling me “sweetheart” upon one day of knowing each other, etc.)

            In fact, she didn’t want to listen to me at all when it came to training! Oh, the arguments. Oh, doing things without telling me. Oh, going to the leader and going “but Mina said…”

            (She stopped when I overheard her and gave her a blank stare right in the eye. She didn’t do it again after that.)

          1. That’s the comparison I usually suggest people consider when they want to excuse a woman getting handsy — would it be okay touching if it were a creepy dude doing it to a teenage girl? Ew? It’s just as ew if it’s a not-male person and no matter who the victim is. Consent still matters just as much. Including if that actually is your mom.

          2. This so much! I’m so heartened by the stories of people whose complaint was taken seriously because so often when it’s a woman, especially an older one, one is made to feel bad for “misunderstanding” their “friendly” gesture. I don’t think that it was unrelated that the last female colleague who did this to me also gave me a new name that she “just liked better” and would go out of her way to introduce me by my new name before I’d finished the word hello. When I complained, especially of the surprise “neck massages,” I was made to feel awful for making her cry when she was just “looking out for me.”

            The captain’s advice is spot on. The letter writer is really doing the fur plucker a favour by jolting her out of this bad behaviour even if it ultimately needs to be escalated into a formal complaint. It does not reflect badly on anyone to ask not to be touched.

          3. GAH, the manipulative crying to get away with bigotry.

            I’ve been trying not to yell at computer screens for the last day or so since I found out about the Mary Beard thing. She’s a famous Oxbridge classics scholar who has apparently done some interesting work on lines of dominance and power. I was looking up what she had written, only to find that Google results are all abuzz with…GAH it’s hard to say this without all the swear words in the universe.

            She wrote a tweet that, at best, was phrased very, very, very badly, with major racist implications among other offenses (she managed to work a lot of ick into one tweet). She got schooled by the internet for saying something that awful. Rather than act like a grownup and a scholar by taking the constructive criticism, apologizing, and making it her business to understand everything wrong about what she said pursuant to never doing that again, she wailed at the internet for being mean and not understanding that of course she’s a good person, and TWEETED A PHOTO OF HERSELF CRYING.

            I kid you not, this scholar whose biggest claim to fame is analyzing lines of dominance and power literally went all white-women’s-tears all over the internet.

          4. There’s no happy ending to my story. I still didn’t get my name back and the handsy woman started to narrate how she was definitely not doing the thing I was being weird about for no reason at all and was just so hurtful. Interestingly other people started pushing back against her too but I don’t know how it panned out because I was fired for “destroying team spirit.” I should’ve been angry but I’m still weirdly proud of that.

            I really love what Captain Awkward has built and wish I were younger because so much of what I’ve found the words to describe here would have made my 20s so much better. It’s really hard to be gaslit (or is it gaslighted?) when you have the words to describe the dynamic rather than a feeling that things aren’t right.

            The Mary Beard tweet is disappointing. The whole fallout makes me dislike twitter all the more. There’s something about the immediacy in the way tweets are received that pushes all the buttons in the limbic system and puts people on the blind defensive instead of into a reflective mood and then it escalates. I’m not defending what she said in any way though. We all carry problematic residual views that can percolate up at times and surprise even ourselves. It’s hard to unpack the reflexive defensive impulse if it feels like being attacked by tweet before the processing can be done.

          5. “Destroying team spirit” translates to “not being quiet and taking it.” Ugh.

            As for twitter, that’s something my lunch does, not a social media platform I use.

          6. formerly_academical, your feeling of pride makes perfect sense — you’re describing a toxic boss working on making the team into a toxic hot mess. Getting out and recognizing that you were better off getting out is a perfectly good reason to be proud.

            I think you’re right about Twitter. I never used it that way much, but as a much more deliberate microblog with planned and thought out things to say, so I didn’t take your meaning at first. There are technological issues with it too, though, which are helping to drive the mass problem behavior — when it first started to get a large userbase, it needed a complete rewrite and redesign in order to scale and to make anything like control of bad behavior remotely practical. They never did that — just kept letting the problems mushroom and slapping smiley face stickers on some of them.

        3. I’m a professor, and back when I looked young I got this a LOT from older women who had returned to school. They would come up to me after class and find some excuse to patronize me. It was like they couldn’t stand it that I had authority at a younger age than them.

        4. I do not get this at all. I’m an older woman now (I have to keep reminding myself) and at no time have I felt the need to groom or stroke younger women. Admittedly I am a stay at home mum right now so don’t have any young female colleagues but I’m pretty sure I could keep my hands to myself if put to the test.

        5. My adviser in undergrad did a version of this. She had my future figured out, what advanced degrees I was going to get and where, what kind of career I would pursue and giving me unsolicited advice about…whatever came to mind. She acted as if I were a child in need of careful guidance and development (I was in my early twenties and had lived abroad for two years already. Not exactly a fragile, helpless little flower.)

          Because I am sometimes dim, it took me awhile to figure out that I was being motherhenned. The best was when I told my mom: her eyebrows shot up and she asked rather icily whether the adviser understood that I already had a mother? Note: the adviser actually knew my mom, so the whole thing was really strange.

          The upshot was that I was not interested in the future she wanted for me, and she went out of her way to tank my reputation in the department, including trying to deprive me of a scholarship. Also? She was a “feminist” who singled out male students for praise and favor.

          Oh, no this was a shit show in the slightest! Why do you ask?

        6. I get it, because I get the ‘mother’ feelings a lot- a LOT. But (gasp) I hold it in and don’t act on it because the young women work with me deserve respect and face enough low key misogynistic garbage in their day without me subtly infantilizing and undermining them. My own instincts being a little ridiculous doesn’t give me the right to add to their troubles.

          Is it tough sometimes? Sure. Is it my job as a professional to do it anyways? You betcha.

      3. “Feels like your mother”

        Unless she has fed you chicken soup when you were sick and vomity, and washed dishes and done laundry for you on a regular basis, she does not get ANY mom privileges. If she has in fact done these things, they are still subject to negotiation – with veto power on the touch-ee’s side.

        “Feels like your mother” NOPE.
        Ahem. I have had this shoved at me and always, ALWAYS, from people who trample boundaries with a great big smile.

        1. This. The person who gave birth to me has no respect for boundaries. That’s why I try to keep 2 large states between us.

          1. That made me laugh: My eldest sister hasn’t ever been able to get over breaking out into compulsive dominance behaviors at me. That includes making huge dramatic gestures right in my face while talking; at times she has smacked me in the head. And I call it compulsive because, for example, when I told her that the gesturing in my face really bothered, me, she started doing it more often and more egregiously while looking like she was wondering, “Why the hell am I doing this stupid thing?” Keeping her at greater-than-arms-length doesn’t quite work, because when the compulsion is on, she’ll lunge at me at astonishing speed and start flailing. I’ve found, however, that even she can’t lunge across a thousand miles simply by leaping and flapping her arms.

        2. I have a name with a common diminutive that I do not especially like, but it’s what I went by for the first 15 or so years of my life, and many of my older relatives still use it. Well, fine, respect your elders and all that and it’s not offensive, just not what I prefer to be called, so I usually let it go. (Having said that: my mom and sibling figured it out, DAD, so maybe you could make the effort?) Some friends from back in those years haven’t quite gotten the memo, but I see them maybe once a decade, so nbd.

          When new acquaintances use that nickname, they get one friendly, “I prefer Fullname, thanks.” If they persist or forget, the reminders get frosty. And if I *stop* reminding you, that’s the sign that I’ve decided you aren’t worthy of even the minimal respect of caring that you’re getting my name wrong. There are multiple people in that category, I’m sorry to say.

      4. I had a coworker once who, after maybe a week or so of working together, started calling me by a cutesy pet name and touching/stroking my arm in conversation. I shut her down pretty gently, telling her that I preferred to be called by my real name and that I didn’t like being touched. Both were lies, really, but only insofar as I don’t mind either behaviour from people I’m close to. Random Coworker Lady certainly didn’t count.

        Happily she was respectful of that and never did it again! Still one of the weirdest people I’ve ever worked with.

  2. Seeing hair on people’s clothes bothers the hell out of me, as well, and I still manage to keep my hands off other people. Sometimes this requires my shoulders to be around my ears, but I can manage it.

    My preferred response from a enhaired person in my vicinity would be “If you notice hairs on me and they bother you, let me know and I’ll take them off for you”, which I would regard as a fantastic and thoughtful way of dealing with my concerns while protecting their own boundaries. But then, I’m a reasonably reasonable person, so I have no idea how that line would work with your handsy colleague. Just thought it might be worthwhile in case you run across anyone in the future who has the same squick but is more able to respect other people’s boundaries about it, and also because there is a *remote* chance it might work with Classmate Handsy and save you from going to Defcon status about it.


    1. Count me as another person who is extremely bothered by stray hairs clinging to clothing (my own and others’ – this is why my cat is not allowed in the room where my clothes live) and who nonetheless manages to not touch people without permission.

      If it’s truly compulsive, Cohortmate needs to figure out strategies for dealing with that so she’s not touching other people without permission. I also dislike being touched by people with whom I am not intimately familiar, and I agree entirely that LW is justified in considering this a big deal and treating it as such!

      1. I do this too. I have clothes for in the house and clothes for out of the house. My cat is trained to know that I will not touch her when wearing “out of the house” clothes. Partly it’s to keep my business apparel clear of cat hair for the sake of appearance, but also it’s because I know how sensitive allergies can be and I don’t want to torture anyone.

          1. There is a Ceremony of Leaving and a Ceremony of Arrival. Both involve petting. The Ceremony of Leaving includes putting treats into a puzzle box for her to fish out. Both have a verbal phrase associated with them — it turns out cats can learn far, far more human vocabulary than most of us realize — think clever two-year-old.

            So I walk in the door at the end of the day and call a greeting. I go change clothes, I then call a different greeting, the start of the Ceremony of Arrival. Cats are a lot like really smart human toddlers in more ways than one, and just like with a toddler, if there is some guaranteed predictable attention when you get home, they’re less likely to get in your face when you’re trying to do things.

            And just like with toddlers, they don’t like the withdrawal of attention that goes with your leaving and feel inclined to wail about it, but giving them a distraction to keep them busy past the emotionally unpleasant sight of you leaving can help them sail past that moment without noticing or minding so much.

          2. More details:

            The words you use for Greeting 1 and Greeting 2 or the start of the Ceremony of Leaving don’t matter so long as you use the exact same words every time. Tone of voice matters in the obvious way (pleasant tone, not angry shouting), but with cats it’s more complicated than that. They hear finer gradations of pitch and inflection than we do. So really getting it the same every time helps.

            When I want to teach mine a new phrase, I go a bit nuts with the repetition, and do the same thing again if she seems to need a refresher on a word or phrase. For example, the phrase I use to offer to comb her fur is “comb the kitty”. I’d repeat, “Comb the kitty, comb the kitty,” constantly in an affectionate tone while combing her. After a while I’d repeat it less. Once she had it, I could use it as a question — “Comb the kitty?” She’d either blink a polite “no thank you”, or trot on over and start purring.

            They do learn quickly the concept of one intonation for declarative statements and another for asking a question.

            The more you can teach them phrases for what is about to happen, the more cooperative they are — they just plain like to know what’s going on. They also like it, toddler-like, when you offer them choices a lot, like how I ask mine if she wants to be combed or petted or offered various toys. As with a toddler, you offer them choices where you’re fine no matter what they choose, but if you can offer them a lot of small choices, they appreciate that pretty emphatically. And even small instances of telling them what is going on builds up their confidence and sense of security. I tell mine when I’m turning on a light in a dark room, because who doesn’t hate not being warned about that? The sound of crushing plastic bottles for recycling makes her jump, so I warn her first every time. Little things, but they appreciate it, and that appreciation tends to show up as them being more cooperative over time.

            What forms of attention you use during the Ceremony of Arrival and Ceremony of Leaving will depend on what works for you and your cat — it’s the sameness and pleasantness that matter (and duration — just like a toddler, they’ll get fussy if you try to cut it short). Some will want all petting, some might want some grooming, some will just want play, or there may be a mix. For the distraction for leaving, a toy with no treats but a good distraction might be what some need. I find the combination of treats and putting them in a puzzle that takes a while works well for mine — fun AND food. Another good distraction might be opening the blinds on a window that faces a bird feeder.

            Also, your cat will try to teach you some of their vocabulary, or more accurately, they will try to find “words” that you seem to be able to understand correctly. It must be a bit frustrating for them since we don’t distinguish pitch as well as they do — they probably wonder why we can’t distinguish between what sounds to them like perfectly distinct “words”. Mine has taught me squeaks that are requests for two different kinds of hugs. At first I didn’t realize she was asking for different ones — she’d ask for a hug, I’d pick her up, and then if I got it wrong she’d want to be put down again instantly, then she’d look me carefully in the face and try again.

            Sometimes they get more complex concepts than you might expect. Mine understand thats, “I’ll be right back,” means I will return to my former position within a couple of minutes, and she doesn’t need to trot after me if she doesn’t want to. She also gets, “I’m sorry,” but that one was tricky at first because she was a very jumpy rescue cat when I got her. Then I hit on the notion of Apology Chicken, and she got the idea really fast — I’d say, “I’m sorry,” and give her a small bite of chicken breast. She not only got it fast, she was hugely grateful that I found a way to apologize in a way she could understand. Now I just say it verbally and offer petting or a toy. But given that they have to be a bit jumpy about some things as a survival tool, I can see why apologizing for startling them can be so soothing.

          3. Helen, that’s absolutely fascinating. We’re going to adopt a cat soon and I’ll try doing this. I’ve always done stuff like apologise for startling a cat but assumed it was tone that mattered, not words.

          4. I forgot an important point — in this business of training in vocabulary, sometimes you get a misfire and accidentally train in something different from what you thought you were doing. In that case, it’s best not to fight it and instead to regard it as a successful training in of the new meaning.

            Example: When I first got her, I had a wand toy she was nuts for — a mouse made from deer hair attached to a wire attached to a wand. The package noted this was for supervised play only because of the wire, so I kept it on a high shelf. She clearly liked wand toys in general, so I got a few more that got really high ratings on amazon — amazon reviewers are amazing at analyzing cat toys. I put them all on the same shelf.

            At this point I’d had her less than two weeks. “Play?” I asked her. “Shall we *play*?” Very excited and happy, so that would be a yes. I got one of the new toys off the shelf and began making it fly. My cat “points”, by the way, using the exact same gesture that pointer dogs do. She sat down and pointed at the high shelf and trilled a long serious of purry meows and chatting that pretty obviously meant, “Thank you so much and I really do want to play, but please can I have the other toy?” I got the message and got down the correct toy.

            I’d meant to teach her that “play” meant chasing a wand toy around in general, but what accidentally got trained in is that “play” meant the deer hair mouse on a wand toy specifically. Trying to correct that would just confuse and frustrate her, while picking a different word to be the more general term and keeping “play” to mean what she thought it did meant wins for everybody.

            If you can find a word that means the cat needs your help, that can be a great thing to have. I got a kitten when I was 13, and I taught him to say, “Mama”. I was being funny — I never thought it would actually work. He didn’t say it in general, but he would call for “Mama” when he got himself onto something too high to get down from.

            I have tried and tried to find something like that for my current cat to say, but I’m not sure that will ever happen because of her history. She survived against some harsh odds before she was rescued, and she is compulsively silent when in any kind of difficulty. I have taught her a word on my end though — “stuck”. I use “stuck” to tell her that I have identified she needs help in some way and I am working on giving it to her. When she is somehow stuck, she prefers slow and gentle movements to un-stick her even though that takes a lot longer, so the word really helps. I can also use it as a question — “Stuck?” — if I think there might be something like that going on.

        1. I wanted to reply to your explanation but there’s no reply button there. Anyway, thank you so much. That was beautiful to read how you and your cat teach eachother how to comunicate.

          1. I loved this! This was fascinating and it explains SO MUCH about our cats’ behavior. We did have a cat that could say “mama” and “no” – he would let you bathe or clip his nails but would sit there and wail “noo! noo!” in this pitiful squeak. He’d repeat “mama” when he wanted food.

          2. The cat training digression is so incredibly cool! I’d definitely read a blog, if you write one.

            We’ve taught our cats to (1) tolerate affection from us (one was feral as a kitten, and has always been a bit skittish) (2) to tolerate handling of their parts (so vet appointments can be less stressful — I read about zoo trainers teaching their animals to cooperate with vet examinations), and (3) to hop on a specific counter at a specific time for treats. The last one — the vet recommended teeth-cleaning treats, so I figured I’d use them as an inducement for learning a new skill.

            I love the idea of teaching them other words, and will now commence using more consistent words and tones for specific things/activities.

          3. For those of you suggesting a cat training blog, thank you, I’m flattered. My first thought was, “I don’t have much to say, though,” but then I look at what I wrote here already.

            I saw the movie, “Temple Grandin” a year or two after I got my current cat, and I had to laugh. My cat had been flagged as needing special patience by the rescue group and nobody expected her to do so extremely well with me so quickly — they thought it would take a lot longer. But I had taken the same attitude toward her that Temple does in the movie towards cows — she assumes cows do things for solid reasons. They’re cow reasons, but they’re real and reasonable to the cow. I treat my cat the same way — she’s unusually intelligent and has some serious survival skills and experience. She deserves my respect, and that includes the respect of treating her as a rational being who does things for real reasons.

            And then, just like in the movie, I studied what she does and try to put myself in her position and think from her perspective to understand those reasons. I’m not sure I could get the cow perspective, but my cat, yes, I’ve been incredibly successful at understanding how she sees things. As Temple says in the movie, respect is key to thinking that way.

            An example: The rescue people warned me they thought she might be a cardboard and paper chewer. I provided her with a selection of boxes of all kinds and sizes to play with as she saw fit. She did chew on some of them. (She also built a kitty fortress out of some of them — I couldn’t stop laughing for days because if anyone would find themselves with a cat who is an engineer, it would be me; things like that just happen to me.) I watched exactly how she went about the box chewing, and realized I was dead certain that at least part of the motivation was dental cleaning — she was trying to clean her teeth, the same way I’ve seen dogs chew sticks to clean their teeth. Fair enough — definitely a good reason to supply her with cardboard to chew. I’ve since then figured out she does some extra cardboard chewing at times to release stress.

            She prefers boxes she can sit in to hold them still while she chews on the walls of the box. So I keep one or two lying around that I’ve cut to the right height to be convenient for her. When she’s destroyed them, I replace them.

            She was also clearly relieved I wasn’t going to stop her from chewing on cardboard completely, and has only been too happy with the deal that she chews on the boxes I give her, not my books and papers. I’ve tried to do that in general — if she really wants to do X or play with Y, I negotiate a compromise where there are allowed outlets for whatever it is.

            Another example: She keeps stealing my pens and mechanical pencils, so when I’m working, I try to keep one handy that I don’t mind her playing with to offer her. Much like dealing with a toddler — gently take back the one that’s not for her and offer her something she’s allowed to have instead, then tell her she’s a good kitty for playing with the correct one.

            For anyone dealing with a newish and jumpy rescue kitty, don’t forget to lavish on the praise when the cat plays with approved toys. I felt like an idiot doing this at first, because it seemed kind of rude and condescending. But even though they don’t usually respond in real time the way a dog would, it really, really helps out the rescue cat to know that there are things they can pounce on or tear up or “kill” and not get displeasure from their human — they want to please their human so badly and stay in the nice new home, but the stress of a new home drives them into rambunctious kill-all-the-things nervous energy, and they really do get scared of losing their human’s approval, and perhaps with it, their home.

          4. Ditto! Awesome explanations, Helen! Cat thought processes and emotions are endlessly fascinating. It’s an endless quest to find out where your cat’s psychology intersects with human psychology – and where it doesn’t! Cognitively and emotionally, in many ways my Maisy’s somewhere in the curious, attention-getting toddler zone, with a few deviations into teenage “You’re not my mom/You can’t tell me what to do” territory and veering back into occasional overstimulated toddler tantrums (thankfully nowadays SO MUCH MORE rare than they used to be! She had definite issues when I brought her home for fostering…). And of course, in many ways that don’t map the human emotional spectrum so well, she’s an adult of her own species, supremely capable in her own right and deserving of mutual respect from the adult of a different species with whom she cohabits (in other words, me!).

            I tried to train my cat to stop something dangerous/inconvenient/goddamnitnotstroppingthesofaagain with a held-up finger and a firm “No”, but she seems to have interpreted both it and the near partner of “Down” (finger points to her then down on the ground) as an imperative “Come here to the finger!”. The result usually satisfies both of us, but it was interesting to work out that she was treating it as a stunt I wanted her to perform instead of recognising that I just didn’t want her to do whatever it was she was doing at the time.

            One of the more useful (and successful) phrases has been “…and the other one!” in an expectant bright voice, when I’m examining ears, eyes or paws, or putting on her two-part harness (and oh, having put the time in to harness train a cat is worth it’s weight in gold every so often!). It’s a plea for patience that I just need her to hold still for me while I do that annoying thing once more (or two or three times, if it’s paws!) – and generally, she’s become as good as gold at holding position for me while I manhandle her now.

            BTW, my own cat’s ceremony of arrival – this one initiated by her – involves her hearing the car arrive and scooting to the top of the hallway radiator so that she can ambush me as I come in with a yell that is quite plainly the cat equivalent of “And what time do you call this, young lady?!”

        2. You are clearly much more advanced than I am, Helen, but oh my gosh yes! Cats can be very conversational! (see: podcaster Georgia Hardstark and her Siamese cat Elvis, who has much to say when asked “do you want a cookie?”) But I’ve found that different cats willfully pick up on different things. I have limited control over what mine will choose to learn; it really depends on their priorities, which change over time. And they will DEFINITELY each have different things to teach me.

          At my house we have:
          Cat 1, who I’ll call Proximity Boy: He understands “let’s go to bed!” and will actually precede me from whatever room we’re in to the bedroom, hop up on the bed, and settle down by my pillow. He’ll stay put until I join him, unless I take too long about any residual bedtime rituals like going back out to retrieve my phone, brushing my teeth, getting warm socks–at which point I reaffirm that yes, I do still want to go to bed. Also, in the last year (he’s over age 10!) I’ve taught him to come out from his hiding spot under the bed when I call his name in a super mournful tone, as if it’s breaking my heart that I can’t see him.
          Cat 2, Cuddly Girl: Patting a spot on the furniture or on my lap signals to her that I see her hovering needily and I would indeed like for her to jump onto that place and be petted. She in turn has developed some “pick me up now” commands. She will jump onto the bed/back of sofa/bathroom counter (allowed; kitchen counter NOT allowed), and if she wants to be picked up and not just petted, she’ll put her paws onto my torso, inviting me to bend over till she can reach for my shoulder and be scooped up.
          Cat 3, Outgoing Baby Boy: Responds equally well to his name and also to “Booger,” which phonetically sounds nothing like his name, but is spoken in a similar tone. Has a specific wailing meow when he needs to poop but can’t make up his mind to go to the litter box; will go take care of it when firmly told to go poop. Protests, “why?!” when commanded to get off whatever high, breakable-object-laden place he’s not supposed to be.

          My wife has never understood why the older cats, which are mine from before we met, haven’t bonded as well with her as she’d like. But I can’t get her to do the one simple thing that is required for my non-outgoing cats: Say hello, and maybe pat them on the head, every single time she walks by them. They want to be acknowledged, and they understand basic greetings. She grew up with dogs, who don’t necessarily need that level of attention in order to become attached to a person. Now we have a dog and I’m pretty clueless about the behavioral aspects of it. Someone please make a blog about dog communication for cat people (and their cats).

          1. I hear you — in my experience, dogs and cats are completely different mindsets. Dogs need a clear hierarchy and command structure of their humans over them. They do well with orders, to the point that many get unhappy and even dangerous when they don’t have orders to follow. They need to know you’re the boss, or things go horribly awry.

            Cats are collaborative. They do have pecking orders with other cats, and my cats have always been clear that I am the dominant one when that matters, but most of the time it doesn’t matter, because what they want is to collaborate. And as you so well described, they like the sociable atmosphere of habitual good manners.

            If you look at what I wrote, notice that while I advocated for making the most of cats’ ability to learn quite a lot of human speech, I did not talk about it in terms of teaching them commands. You *can* teach cats commands, but they’re still going to reserve the right to weigh whether or not they want to follow them each and every time. Much as a human toddler will.

            That’s why, with a cat, I’d start by teaching them to get that you use words to say what’s about to happen — turning on the light, going upstairs, let’s go to the living room, time for bed, time to go to work, etc. They like the concept, once they get it, and they like the sociable good manners aspect of you letting them know what’s happening.

            Once they’re used to the idea that you reliably use certain words to mean certain things, teaching them to understand when you ask if they want to do something comes next — play, pet the kitty, comb the kitty, look out the window.

            By most people’s estimation, my cat obeys a command to let me trim her claws, but that is not what is happening in reality. There’s a ceremony of consent that involves a few stages. If we get 4 or more nails trimmed, I declare victory and we go to praise and treats. She is free to exit the process at any point and this will be accepted cheerfully, but 4 nails have to get trimmed if she wants the treats.

            It looks like she’s obeying, because how many cats will come to a nail clipping when summoned verbally and hop obediently into one’s lap? But in reality, I’m requesting collaboration in the Pedicure Ceremony (the ceremony involves inspecting my toenails first — she seems to think this is some kind of girly spa thing). It’s an invitation on my part, not a summons, and there is no disapproval if she declines. I’ll simply ask again later or the next day. This approach works incredibly well on many cats and in my experience it is the most dependable route to a relaxed and happy and cooperative cat.

            But it would give a dog a nervous breakdown. Dogs who are treated as that level of collaborative equal with their humans tend to wind up tense and bite-y. They can’t handle what seems to them like terrifying uncertainty when humans treat them that way. I’d go with surfing youtube to learn some dog body language and the right human body language and tones to use with a new dog.

            The good news for you is that dog body language is a lot easier to learn for most people than that of cats. You’re already used to reading quite subtle cat communication accurately, so learning dog communication won’t be hard.

    2. “If you notice hairs on me and they bother you, let me know and I’ll take them off for you”

      LOL, yeah, not going to happen. If someone tells me once there is something they think is ‘wrong’ with my clothes, and it falls into the category of ‘they might honestly think I want to know’, I will think they mean to be considerate, and either ‘fix’ it (if I did consider it a problem) or thank them and let them know I don’t mind it.

      If after they have been told once that it doesn’t bother me, they bring it up again, then I would conclude that they are not being helpful, just rude and pushy and invasive and controlling.

      If someone’s fly is down or skirt is tucked into their pantyhose, you let them know. Hair on pants could conceivably fit into this category for some people, I guess, but once you realise it doesn’t, that’s it, it is no longer OK to comment.

      1. I was reading it more as being aware of the *other* person might be having a problem (e.g. allergies to dander, blinking LEDs).

        The whole “if you notice that one specific thing about my clothing is causing you a problem, let me know and I will try to fix it (because of course you are not a jackass and will not paw at my clothes without permission)” seems kind. (You’re free not to make the effort for others, of course.)

        1. Oh, I know that’s how it was meant. I was responding that I think that’s an extremely unreasonable thing to expect someone to do (I assume the person who suggested it meant it as a kind of ideal dream, not that they are seriously suggesting people do this).

          There is no indication that the rude person in LWs class has some kind of terrible allergy, in fact the fact that she’s touching the hair makes that unlikely scenario even more far fetched.

          It just annoys her. And expecting someone to change their appearance because their appearance annoys you, is being an asshole.

          Even letting them know it annoys you is pretty out there, frankly.

        2. There’s a difference between “I have an allergy” as a reason and “Seeing hair on someone else bothers me”. The former is a lot more reasonable since it’s addressing a very real problem that effects them beyond when you see them. The latter? Comes across pretty “I don’t like something about your clothes and I want a open excuse to try to get you to fit my standards” to me – and that’s usually how I’ve seen that play out, frankly. Which is why, on a personal level, my response is always going to be “I’m sorry it bothers you. -topic change-” instead of offering them an open door to pester me about cat hair I frankly don’t have the energy to scour my clothes for whenever I see them.

    3. I remember standing in line at the supermarket and staring at the bright yellow thread clinging to the dark blue shirt of the person in front of me. Oh how I wanted to reach out and pick it off, but honestly the idea of someone touching me without permission bothers me more that that thread did so it stayed there.

    4. With you there. A lot of times I will point out the hair and if the hair is in a place they can’t reach (like their back), I will let them know about it BEFORE I take it off them, so that they can have the choice to let me help or not.

      1. This!
        I’m a vet tech who works at a cat-only vet clinic, so you can imagine how much hair gets all over our clothes every five minutes. And even we, vet people who basically live and breathe cat hair, leave the de-hairing to the person who is wearing the furred-up clothes. If we notice, say, a giant clump of fuzz from the cat we just shaved down is stuck to someone’s back, we point it out, and let them figure out if they can get to it themselves or not. And if they decide they need help, then and only then do we grab off the fur, and we don’t linger about it like a troop of monkeys picking through each other’s hair.

        If we can do this in a profession where cat hair is a constant, then a law student can certainly handle keeping her hands to herself, especially after being explicitly told to do so. Since she can’t seem to grasp this, I do agree that the next step is Firm and Loud “HEY KNOCK IT OFF” or whatever equivalent you choose.

      2. Exactly like this. I foster homeless cats and kittens and my field of expertise is biology so I simply cannot help sometimes traipsing about in rubber boots, smelling of cattle shed. When I come home my cats are used to me changing into home clothes before petting them thoroughly, they just stand there, waiting patiently and purring. Still, I really cannot completely avoid having cat hair in my clothes even though I use lint brush to remove all the possible cat hair from my clean laundry. Besides, some of our cats are really vigorous shedders.

        We have some friends who love our cats dearly but must remove cat hair in their clothes before leaving (for example to be considerate of an allergic spouse). We always have several lint brushes available for them and only help them remove the cat hair if they ask us for help. I could not even imagine doing something like the LW’s colleague does but it probably does help that I do not even seem to notice hair on other people’s clothes.However, if there are stains or loose pieces of thread or hair on my own clothes I cannot really concentrate on anything else.

    5. It may seem reasonable and respectful to you, but to me it would come across as kind of controlling and invasive since it’s effectively saying “Yeah, let me know when I need to change something about my clothes for you!” I mean, it would be one thing if I was violating a dress code, or wearing something legitimately offensive, but other than that? What I’m wearing isn’t the other person’s business, and this suggestion would feel far too much like criticism of how I dress, and wanting me to dress to your standards instead of you respecting that we have different standards for that.

      With regards to the LW’s classmate…I’d be hesitant to try it. I’ve met and been in social groups with people who sound a lot like Handsy and more often than not they take that inch and try to take a mile. So, unless the OP is willing to put up with that, I’d cut straight to the chase of “I’ve asked you not to do this.” as suggested by the Captain.

  3. When she says “But it bothers me,” you can offer her the advice I give to people who complain about being offended by women breastfeeding: If seeing it bothers you so much, you are 100% welcome to direct your gaze in one of the other 3 cardinal directions. Immediately.

    1. My preference would be ‘I’m sorry that bothers you’, in the tone you might say ‘I’m sorry you have a sore throat’, while resisting any urge you have to brush off the hair. _Leave the hair_ while saying this.

      I.e., you’re sorry they are afflicted with this condition that makes them bothered by such things. That must make life frustrating. It’s a commiseration ‘sorry’ NOT an apology ‘sorry’.

      1. Nope. I learned in a training about working with difficult people that you never say “sorry” unless you are actually accepting the blame. If you want to commiserate, use the phrase “that’s unfortunate” which does not give an indication that you are apologizing.

        1. I mean, that’s a matter of opinion. “I’m sorry” is a colloquialism that can mean “I apologize” but doesn’t have to. I’ve never met any of those rules-lawyer types that were stopped, magic-spell like, by my perfectly chosen words, so I don’t personally find agonizing over the exact word choice to be a good use of energy.

        2. Tbh, “that’s unfortunate” comes off REALLY passive-aggressive and sarcastic/snarky. I’d be genuinely kinda pissed at someone whose response to me was “that’s unfortunate”. I feel like “that’s unfortunate” has the potential to actually escalate the situation rather than defusing it.

          Which is why, as MuddieMae said, perhaps getting super specific about precise word choice is not the best strategy here.

          1. You’re right — it can sound off to a person with normal respect for boundaries, though I think the right tone of voice would help. But essEss is right about this mattering when dealing with manipulative dominance freaks.

            Though some times I’m willing to let one declare victory if it doesn’t matter, because people like that will try to set up conflict over ridiculous things, and they’re so good at being irksome that it can be hard to let them “win” no matter how stupid the conflict. Recently one was pestering me in an online discussion claiming I had said things I hadn’t. I kept firmly telling her to quote back where I had said those things so everyone could see what she meant. She kept insisting that this was me abusing her that she could claim I’d said anything she wanted to, but it was criminal to ask her to point to the evidence.

            Someone else asked a question about whether disagreeing with a certain point was okay, and I said, sure, that everyone was perfectly welcome to disagree with anything anyone had actually said. The person trying to pick and win some weird fight seized on this as a chance to declare victory, thanked me for giving in to her, and generally flounced about claiming she’d “won”. I just laughed — if she wanted some kind of “victory” that badly, I was perfectly happy to let her have that one, because goodness, it must be miserable to be trapped in a mind that thinks that kind of garbage is fun.

          2. Helen Huntingdon: “You’re right — it can sound off to a person with normal respect for boundaries, though I think the right tone of voice would help. But essEss is right about this mattering when dealing with manipulative dominance freaks.”

            I was going to say, reasonable people understand the use of rhetorical furniture; difficult people are liable to throw the furniture at you. When dealing with difficult people, I find it best to pack the furniture away–decline to give them any more ammunition than I have to.

            But “manipulative dominance freaks”–wow, that really puts a finger on it. Yes. Dealing with manipulative dominance freaks requires different strategies.

            You know how “It’s OK” is a common colloqualism for “I accept your apology, we’re cool now, let’s move on”? Right, so, this person I’d just met as part of a group activity, she said something breathtakingly rude to me, and I called her out for it in a clear, boundary-defining manner. “I’m sorry,” says she, and “It’s OK,” says I. And she pounces on it: “Oh, is it? Is it really? Because it sure didn’t sound like you thought it was OK.” It left me terribly wrong-footed in front of the rest of the group.

            If it were me today, and I knew about her then what I know now, I would have probably explained to her, “No, what you did was not OK; that’s why I told you not to do it again. But you apologized, so now we’re OK. That’s what ‘It’s OK’ means. You see?” It would be condescending as fuck but totally appropriate, since she was not engaging in good faith and that merits No Fucks Given Mode. But I was ten years younger, and furthermore I had only just met her and didn’t want to offend. Had no idea that this sort of dominance-posturing gotcha-game was pretty much how every conversation with her for the next two or three years was going to go.

            She was a difficult person. 😛

          3. @ vortexae, if you had said “we’re good” or “no problem” or something different, do you really think she would have reacted differently? To continue your analogy, the difficult people I’ve known will use any and all words as metaphorical furniture. That’s why its pointless – not because they don’t lash out, but precisely because they do, over anything. You could be communicating your message with semaphore and they would start parsing your stance or form or something.

          4. MuddieMae: Honestly, I think that my best bet with that person would have been to say the thing that “It’s OK” stood for: “Thank you for apologizing. I’m glad you won’t do it again.” And then move on. And then if she wanted to pick a fight and engage in bad faith, it would have been with what I actually meant, rather than with an unreasonable literal reading of common reasonable-people rhetoric.

            For me, it’s a matter not of avoiding a fight–with difficult people, the fight is inevitable. It’s a matter of preemptively choosing the battleground.

            Honestly, I’m not trying to tell you what words to choose. You do you. I do wonder why you’re so intent on telling other people who have chosen different strategies that the very act of choosing strategies is worthless.

      2. I like a noncommital “Okay” followed by a restatement of the expectation. “Okay. You still can’t touch me.” “Okay. But you still can’t hit your brother.” “Okay. It’s time for PE!” (I’m a SPED teacher.) For me, the formula is: acknowledge the feeling without condoning or owning, and then restate the expectation.

  4. I too am of the cat-hair-is-a-part-of-my-outfit cohort. People have told me (like I didn’t already know), have plucked tufts off me, and on one memorable occasion tried to lint-brush me without my knowledge and ended up knocking my glasses off. This is worth fighting for. I have repeated on several occasions “We are all adults (sometimes “professional adults”) here, and adults do not put their hands all over other adults without permission!”

      1. I am wearing a black sweater today and have spent a portion of the morning removing my own silver hairs from it. There are probably some on the back of the sweater that I can’t see.

        Even so, I don’t want anyone picking at my sweater, thank you.

        My go-to response to people pawing at me for any reason is the step-back, the hand-up and the “yeah, don’t do that.”

        If I get a “but it bothers me!” I respond with something along the lines of “oh, well, yeah, but please don’t do that.”

        1. I shed. I have a lot of hair and it’s everywhere. I’ve occasionally had people try to pluck stray hairs off me. I find I can stop it by cringing away from them with a shocked “Why the hell are you touching me?” I usually catch them with their hand outstretched and a wide-eyed expression. My response to when they say “It bothers me” is “unless you start finding my hair in your food, I don’t need your help. Thanks”

      2. My hair is currently dyed galaxy colours, and thus I have purple and blue and teal strands hither and yon. So far no one’s been picking them off me, but then I work with kids, who usually say, “Oh, okay” and stop when you firmly tell them, “I don’t like that”.

  5. To enhance the Captain’s excellent scripts, I find it can be useful to work the phrase “I do not consent” in there, ideally within earshot of others. That both makes it as clear as humanly possible that you do not consent and that she is touching you without your consent, and it gives you the additional tool of being able to say “I have explicitly told her I do not consent.”

  6. Captain’s advice is spot-on; I just want to offer my sympathy. I’ve never had anything to this extent, but I occasionally have someone sitting behind me in church “helpfully” adjust a tag that’s turned inside out from my shirt or somesuch, with no warning. I really don’t like being unexpectedly touched that way, and I’ve resolved to gently speak up the next time it happens. I’m glad it’s rare because it’s really a bit of a pet peeve: besides the startle factor, having the tag turned back in by someone else makes me intensely aware that it’s now itchy against my neck, and if I turn around to see why someone was just touching me, people look like they expect to be thanked. I’d rather they not interrupt me during the service to tell me about it either; I’m busy singing/listening/praying, and I’m sorry if they find the tag a bit distracting but there are hundreds of things one could find distracting that don’t justify poking at someone’s back.

    1. I might in this situation shrug like I didn’t notice them turning my tag but am suddenly itchy, and reach behind me to flip it back without turning around…

      1. That’s a possibility. In my case, I also want them to know that I’d like it to not happen again, so words are in order. These people aren’t like the LW’s classmate, thankfully. I think they really do mean well and would stop if asked. It hasn’t happened lately, so this may be another case where once I decide how to deal with the situation, the situation goes away.

    2. I used to purposefully turn my tags out because my skin is really sensitive and I often get a rash from tags. It annoyed me so much when people would shove the tag back in and cheerfully announce that they fixed it for me. 1) Don’t touch me. 2) The tag was out FOR A REASON: I PUT IT THERE.

      Eventually I bought a seam ripper and now I remove all tags from my clothes.

    3. I have PTSD. I always sit with my back to a wall. preferably facing the door, in part for this reason. I never want anyone coming up behind me and touching me; the startle response would risk startling the whole congregation.

      Old Viking proverb; ‘never sit with your back to the door; you never know who might come in.’ Sensible advice.

      And while I am on the subject, what is it with touchy-feely Vicars? Ask before you hug!!!

      1. It’s just more power-tripping, more getting off on the rush of assaulting people.

        An aunt of mine who worked for Catholic Charities told me about having to host a visit from Leo Buscaglia, including driving him everywhere and generally waiting on him and looking after him. She said he basically did his best to make sure his hands were always on somebody else. He’d constantly paw at her while she was driving, with that really heavy-handed plonk-hand-on-shoulder/upper-arm-and-hold-it-there weightily gesture of dominance. While constantly pawing weightily at his victims, he would shove his face in theirs so they could get covered in his spittle (he was a spitty talker) and tell them with great firmness that this was him sharing the wonderful power of his love with them. And then wrap them in a full-body rub-all-over them hug. And not let go. Until he felt like it.

        Any sign of not liking this would get you a high-speed constant-pawing lecture of spit in your face about how you are damaged and in need of his special healing love all the more, because everyone needs his special healing love and to not be thrilled to get as much of it as possible means you are tragically broken and he must fix you RIGHT NOW with his magic paws of heavy touch. And magic bad breath.

        He was really seriously assault-y she said — didn’t want a hug? Tough shit, you were getting his body rubbed all over yours by force while he rubbed his hands over you and told you this was him granting you special healing love. Try to escape? Protest that he’s physically hurting you, because he likes his hugs violent? You’d find yourself in an instant kangaroo court of followers all agreeing with him that you are broken and must submit immediately to more of his full-body rubby grapplings to try to correct how you’re so broken you don’t want love.

        Oh, and of course it was women he focused on the most. Young and pretty ones. Because a pretty young woman committing suicide was his reason for inventing all this love-ministry crap, because of course, if she’d only had the benefit of his full-body assaults and gropings, she would never have committed suicide. It was all for the lack of his magic love, you see. And pawing. Oh, and sweating — he liked to work up a good sweat hyperactively charging around in front of an audience and then hit as many petite, young, pretty women as he could with full body molestings of wet sweat.

  7. I had something like this happen way back in the early mists of time when I was still in advertising. Back then I had very long hair, about waist length. There was a coworker who would push it back from my shoulders (when I was leaning over a layout or photo contact sheet) or just brush it back around my waist. I don’t know if this person liked my hair and was just taking advantage, or if this person thought they were ‘helping’.

    Anyway one day (after too long of this) we were in a meeting with a few people looking over photos and Person started fiddling with my hair. Now I knew what was going on, but I was looking through a lupe (so, concentrating, working). When I felt Person touching me, I rose up abruptly and said quite clearly, ‘What the hell who’s fucking with me?’ to no one in particular (yes to Person in particular).

    Person was shamed-faced and mumbled, Well your hair… And I said, “I’m trying to work here. Play with your own hair.” Person was SO. EMBARRASSED. But you know, Person brought it on. Person never touched me again.

    So to you I’d suggest the same. Next time Person starts weirding at you around others, startle the hell out of her and state, “I’m trying to work/talk/research here. Pick at your own clothes.”

    Not the kindest response, but you’ve tried kind. Be direct.

    1. I totally agree with Policychick. I’m a big believer in being blunt and direct if I’ve tried kind and kind didn’t work. OP, you’re in law school. When I hire a lawyer, I expect that lawer to be an absolute barracuda on my behalf and that’s a skill not every one has. OP, this is a perfect opportunity for you to be your own barracuda. Make a stink. Tell her off. Go to the top of the organization if you have to. Any good lawyer would do the same kind of stuff for their client – do the same for yourself! (Reading the letter made me think of the monkeys in the zoo that pick crud off each other and eat it. What is this woman’s problem?? I’m female with three sisters. We don’t pick at each other like monkeys.)

    2. Oh it’s plenty kind! After all you didn’t say “What’s wrong with you Person? Keep your hands to yourself!”

      And your response was great.

    3. One of the creepier tactics in the manipulative dominance freak arsenal is pretending some part of you, and/or something where you own all the boundaries, is actually completely separate from you and something they can visit and build a relationship with independently of you.

      Like dudes who insist your boobs don’t actually belong to you, but are something separate that they are having a relationship with on all their own. We’ve all seen dudes have whole conversations with them. Hopefully that used-to-be-really-common domestic abuser routine of the dude telling his wife that her breasts are his and he can do whatever he wants with them whenever he wants has faded into the mists of time (I know, that’s overly optimistic of me).

      Or Hair Grabby — she was trying to get you and everyone else used to the idea that she and your hair had a special relationship together separate from you. She was just helping your hair out, because she and it are friends. It had nothing to do with you. “Go play with your own hair,” was so brilliantly perfect because it skewered that with utter precision.

      People try this kind of crap a lot with other people’s animals and children. There are exactly two people who get to have an independent relationship with a baby — mommy and daddy. For everyone else, and that means EVERYONE, they don’t have a direct and independent relationship with the baby; they have (or fail to have) a relationship with the parents, and the parents may or may not extend that to include various sorts of contact/relationship with the baby too at any given point.

      Trying to fake an independent relationship is used to justify some pretty crass behavior — the dominance freak may, for example, pick a fight with someone and be awful to them, refuse to apologize, and then show up at their home still radiating “I am displeased with you” hostility, demanding to be let in because they’re “here to see the baby / the cat / the ferret / the rubber tree / the wallpaper.” When told it’s not a good time or some other form of “no”, they’ll double-down on, “I’m here to see the baby, not you!” while dripping with umbrage. Except, that’s not how it works. The baby does not maintain separate relationships and receive visitors as an independent entity, and for good reason.

      I have zero patience with people who think they can be rude to a baby’s parent or just try to ignore their existence altogether and then still demand access to the baby as some kind of independent right. That’s not how it works. Luckily, that’s a situation for which a lot of the Captain’s scripts work well. “You’re saying I’m controlling because I make all the decisions for my baby? Why thank you! That is a parent’s job!”

      1. I really strongly disagree with framing a child similarly to a body part, as an extension of its parents. A child is its own person who belongs to itself. It is not a belonging or body part of its parents. And as a child you do have relationships with other people, you just do, it’s not something that can be stopped or that would be healthy to stop.

        I do agree though that parents acting as supervisors and gatekeepers to their children’s relationships is appropriate, especially at younger ages. It’s part of the job of parents to guide and protect their child, including in forming relationships.

        1. Helen didn’t say children are an extension of their parents. She said people who act like you’re not entitled to control who touches your body are the kind of people who act like parents aren’t allowed to control who has a relationship with their baby.

          No one is entitled to steamroller over a baby’s parent(s)/caregiver(s) to have a relationship with the baby. I’m sure Helen was thinking of those people who alienate their own child then squeal that they have a right to their child’s baby, even though their child wants to nuke them from orbit.

  8. OP, I’m a lawyer, and I know that’s what people say about developing a reputation in law school… but I really don’t think this kind of situation is what they mean. Law school is intense, emotions run high, and I would need more than two hands to count the number of times I personally saw people making scenes about things with various degrees of importance (and of course, this is an important and legitimate reason to make a scene). I don’t think people will hold it against you.

    1. Agreed – the number of hallway meltdowns I witnessed would have made probably half my class unemployable. Fortunately, that didn’t matter.

    2. Yep. Another lawyer here, and Joielle’s comment reflects my experience during and after law school too.

      1. But it probably *might* affect someone’s employability if your boss is like “hey, you went to law school with this person, we’re bringing her in for an interview next week, what do you think?” and you (a trusted competent employee) said “Welp, she’s very smart but she had a problem with touching people inappropriately. Hope that’s settled down!”

        Like, continuing this behavior is more risky for the toucher than speaking up about it now is for the LW.

        1. Yes! This too. A one-time scene about pretty much anything is normal, but a pattern of concerning behavior will be remembered. Honestly, calling more people’s attention to the pattern is probably a good thing.

    3. Also a lawyer, and I also went to law school as a “non-traditional” student in my 30s. Telling her firmly, with language like what the Captain has suggested, will absolutely not follow you as some kind of negative in your professional life. Rather, your fellow student will likely carry a reputation of having been a little weird during law school.

      Think of it as practice for zealous advocacy — for yourself.

    4. Yep, with your fellow students, this. At the same time, it never hurts to develop a reputation in law school as being easy to work with–I actually got my lateral BigLaw job from a partner I took a class from who remembered me from class, so your rep and behavior in law school actually can have a big impact. I also advised against hiring a lateral classmate who did some really sexist stuff while I was EIC of a journal and trying to get him to do his darn work, at my old job, and while I have no idea whether my input was what tanked his application he was not hired. So how your peers and professors experience you in law school CAN make a big difference–including whether you are seen as easy to work with.

      So bearing that in mind, OP, here’s my non-legal advice from a lawyer:

      -you say you’ve directly asked her to stop and I believe you, but before loudly calling her out in the moment, *I personally* would try one attempt, possibly by email, of directly laying out, NOT in the moment, something to the effect of “you are touching me without my permission, in a professional context, even though I’ve asked you not to. Please stop; if you continue to touch me, and other colleagues, without permission, you are risking damage to your professional reputation.” (If by email, I’d add some kind tones to it–the email would be an option I’d want to use if I were making a record, and when you’re making a record sounding really kind and reasonable in what will be a third-party’s first on-the-record impression of your approach to the problem is paramount, and it’s usually worth being nicer than someone deserves by the time you want to make your record). That’s not because you are *in any way* obligated to be nice to this toucher about her inappropriate touching, or teach her how to be an adult professional, from a moral standpoint. But (1) sometimes in-the-moment is less effective because fluster, and your first goal is to solve the problem; (2) you may not have framed *her* behavior as unprofessional, which is probably the most effective framing in this context from her POV since she too presumably understands networking; (3) though *probably* an on-the-spot, firm and potentially audible to others call-out won’t harm your reputation, there is *some risk* and the risk is mitigated more by a private, not-in-the-moment discussion if you haven’t tried that track (or even if you didn’t mention professionalism the first time); and (4) it allows you to do it before she continues the behavior/avoids enduring more incidents whole you wait for her to touch you in the right circumstances, because…

      -I really would advise against doing an in-the-moment harsh call-out at an event, in class, or otherwise around your professors. Those really all are networking moments w/ people who you might be asking for a job in the future, and they won’t have the context of you asking several times before–all they’ll see is you loudly telling someone to stop touching you in what is clearly a non-sexual way, and you don’t want that to be the thing they remember about you after law school. The best lawyers actually spend a lot of time trying to de-escalate conflict, and–even though it’s not fair–just a snapshot of that interaction might look like the opposite of that. If you do it in a room with only your fellow students, they’re way more likely to chalk it up to law school stress (if they’re bothered) or a reasonable reaction to this very immature girl (who they’ve probably also had obnoxious experiences with that professors wouldn’t, because unless she’s really off her gourd she would not treat professors this way but probably treats other students like siblings).

      –speaking of making your record, if you have to collaborate closely with her for an organization (law review, moot court, society president, clinic case, whatever), you might want to take the extra step of asking the person above you on that org chart for advice on handling her touching, just to CYA in case she tries to stir anything up there. Again, you shouldn’t have to, but this will show anyone who could take an adverse action against you if she complains that you’re the reasonable one here. With you making the first move to provide context, “LW is being mean!” will not sound reasonable from her. Personally, I had a very bad experience where I was blamed for a similar issue because, after my numerous attempts at resolution (no response from the other party) failed, she was the first one to raise the issue with a student leader, and therefore she controlled the narrative. However, if you go this route, you should be prepared to follow any reasonable advice you receive, even if that means making another softer attempt first, because you’ll be much more credible as the person making the best effort to solve the problem professionally if you’re taking advice from your upper-level peers/mentors. I also wouldn’t frame it as “cat hair on clothes all the time;” I’d reference “lint and hair” or “everyday detritus” and give examples from casual contexts (not in class or at events–Bar Review if you have that would be good, study groups, weekend meetings) if they’re available, because some people might be judgy about it if you state that you come to class regularly with lots of hair on your clothes. This is unfair, but the WHY for her touching isn’t actually relevant to whether she should be touching you in the first place, so you might be better off skipping it, since many lawyers and protolawyers are judgmental about appearance.

      And, on that last point–I don’t know where you’re planning to take your career, and in NO WAY is her behavior okay, and I know this isn’t the advice you asked for. I also think it really SHOULDN’T be anyone’s business, assuming no health stuff, if you show up every day with a furminator worth of hair on your shirt.

      But… Law school is a really good time to get your cat hair under control. Beyond how people see your cleanliness during school (which may be creating an unwanted and unwarranted impression of sloppiness), law is a conservative industry, dress-wise. Even if you’re doing non-profit work, there are lots of contexts that will come up pretty frequently where you’re going to need to be cat-hair-free–for instance, if you’re a litigator, court appearances and depositions (though there are plenty of non-litigation examples). If you’re an immigration lawyer, you do not want to face down an ICE agent who wants to detain your client in a dirty pair of slacks–s/he isn’t going to take you seriously that way. You’re self-describing a noticeable amount of hair and self-reporting no strategy for changing that anytime soon–and it takes a while to develop good habits around hair reduction. Your career is your business, but my bet is that *the cat-hair itself* (including during law school) will have a much bigger impact on how your colleagues perceive you than how you handle this one girl’s inappropriate attempts to remove it, and that impact will be larger the longer you continue to be noticeably hairy–particularly if that time extends after law school AT ALL. (Also, if this ridiculous boundary pusher wants to stir drama up around you wanting your body to be your own, the cat hair will get a lot more noticeable when she starts telling anyone who will listen about how much it bothers her, which could make the cat hair the thing people remember about you). Law school is really exhausting and stressful, but I promise you that law PRACTICE is even moreso, but without any vacations or extensions on papers. Taking the cat hair on in law school will be easier than taking the cat hair on when you start meeting clients.

      None of that is to say that your classmate is IN ANY WAY justified for touching you to pick off cat hair. You being a bit messy is never justification for another person to put their hands on your body unless you’ve consented/you’re a very small child who can’t clean yourself. None of that makes it reasonable for anyone observing your interactions with this immature colleague to place one iota of fault or responsibility for “causing a scene” on you, the person experiencing unwanted touching. I’m raising the cat hair as something you may want to fix–despite you having accepted it and expressing that you’re not planning to change it anytime soon–because you have *also* expressed that you’re trying to cultivate a professional reputation during law school. I wouldn’t want this girl to be the only person raising it with you–just because she’s treating the cat hair like a weird family sibling thing doesn’t mean it isn’t *independently* a potential professionalism problem. Messy appearance can make it very hard to get a job, and very hard to earn respect once you’ve gotten it.

      I have two cats and don’t have hair on anything in public, and it took a while to get it down, so I really can’t recommend enough that you start developing habits to fix it before you’re in the midst of interviews/working. If you can afford it, it’s worth sending your car out to be thoroughly detailed, since that’s really hard to do yourself (and if you can afford professional cleaning, it is MUCH EASIER to keep a closet/carpet/couch clean than make them clean and keep them clean while also making the next thing on the list clean). The amount of money it will cost to have your car detailed, at the least, will probably pay off in not showing up to interviews with cat hair on the butt of your freshly laundered suit. Candidly, if I interviewed a 2L who had cat hair on their suit at OCI or a call back, unless they were literally the top of their class, really personable and sharp in conversation, and acknowledged it (“sorry for the hair, I unexpectedly had to take my cat to the vet literally on my way here,”), I would recommend against hiring them. While *I* don’t really care what someone looks like, others would–and I would not have confidence that a candidate who shows up messy for a job interview wouldn’t do it in court (judges in some areas are REALLY OBNOXIOUS about ‘respect) or, god forbid, in front of a jury (they care about the weirdest things. Polling jurors after I mock a case makes me want to cry).

      I don’t want to sound harsh, or insinuate that you’re unhireable, OP, or even that you would necessarily show up hairy to a interview just because you show up that way to class, or even that I’m picturing you and all of your covered in hair and not just lightly sprinkled. But it sounds a bit like there may be hair in hard-to-clean areas of your car that might make it very difficult for you to keep it 100% away if you need to, and I totally used to have that critical mass of hair, and an “eh, that’s life” attitude about it that was unhelpful. I’m very grateful that one of my professors sat me down and was like “so you are a mess, and people will care just as much about that as your grades,” so I’m paying it forward.

      If it helps, here is my routine:
      -work clothes in a closet with a fully latching door that I never leave open, suits in zipped bags in that closet unless on my body
      -work clothes on only after I’ve done everything else in the morning, so I’m not wearing them in the house long
      -lint brush on my butt when I get out of the car because it gets on that seat sometimes no matter what I do
      -blazers/jackets go into the closet as soon as I get home, even before I pee, and I wear different warm layer things and clothes in the house and out, regardless of whether they’re work clothes (wash-after-every-use clothes can stay on at the end of the day, but if I’ve been lounging in an outfit for 3 hours I change it before getting back in my car/putting on a clean coat)
      -all things my cats like to sit on must have 100% removable and machine washable coverings, that means cat beds too, and they must be washed a minimum of once weekly, and I need at least one extra set of everything (which can include just sheets for my couch) because I can’t leave exposed cushions EVEN FOR A MINUTE or else IT WILL BE COMING FROM INSIDE THE COUCH
      -furminator (they’re amazing) my cats at least once a week until it stops filling up, THEN VACUUM THE ROOM, wash the covering for the furniture I furminator in, and immediately take out the trash (usually I do this on garbage day, because if I leave the fur in the can the slight breeze of opening the lid will scatter it everywhere for days even if it’s got like 10 rocks on top of it)
      -dishwasher the food/water bowls every day, which means 2 sets of bowls
      -replacing toys/scratchers before they’re worn out if they’re not washable/easily vacuumed
      -silicone litter mat (also dishwasher frequently), because the felty ones attract hair and are hard to clean
      -cats not allowed in the laundry room ever, ever, ever, + no cats wherever the room is you leave clean things waiting to be folded (if that’s not the laundry room)
      -an order of operations to laundry–first, if needed, vacuum/sweep folding room (my bedroom for me), then get naked, then, collect dirty laundry and strip furniture, then put laundry in (I do not have roommates), then put clean clothes on me + my furniture, then fold stuff in the clean room
      -no buying unfinished wood objects or felt things, since they’re fur magnets
      -keeping the cats out of my office where I store my books and papers as much as possible (i.e. when I’m not in it), keeping loose piles of paper out of places where the cat is likely to be since they also collect fur like beanie babies in the 90s, keeping laptops/briefcases/suitcases in my office/shut closets as well
      -not leaving containers (drawers, boxes, purses, cabinets) open anymore which is harder for me than it sounds, because they WILL fill with hair in less than a day
      -packages that were taped up go STRAIGHT outside to the recycling bin, that day–if I don’t have the energy to take it out I don’t open it
      -all mats (kitchen, bath) must be machine-washable
      -no houseplants too heavy for me to pick up easily, houseplants have extra drip saucers for regular dishwashing
      -a rumba is not a substitute for vacuuming often but it’s a great substitute for vacuuming every day
      -housekeepers are great; housekeepers who follow directions well are worth their weight in clean, hairless designer oxfords, especially when those directions are “I do not care if you never touch a toilet brush as long as you dust the baseboards for cat hair”

      Which… Is A LOT OF STUFF, and probably you already do some of it/don’t need all of it/can do a lot of it differently. And, I know your question is about boundaries, not how/whether to deal with the cat hair. But having crisp, clean, hairless clothes is really important for a lawyer, and since you wrote in out of concern for your professional reputation during law school, I think you should be aware that the cat hair itself may be having an impact–potentially a much larger one than a firmly asserted boundary will.

        1. It tends to be less or more work depending on the color/hair length of your cats, the way temperature works where you live, whether you wear patterns a lot (hides hair way better than a solid color, and unfortunately lawyers have to wear solids pretty frequently), and whether your cats like THEIR stuff or like ALL THE STUFF (I swear the cat I had in college didn’t sleep on anything but my bed and the bean bag I ceded to her because I wasn’t going to win that fight anyway, but my cats now sleep on whatever appears to have been cleaned most recently).

      1. “Law school is a really good time to get your cat hair under control. Beyond how people see your cleanliness during school (which may be creating an unwanted and unwarranted impression of sloppiness), law is a conservative industry, dress-wise. Even if you’re doing non-profit work, there are lots of contexts that will come up pretty frequently where you’re going to need to be cat-hair-free–for instance, if you’re a litigator, court appearances and depositions (though there are plenty of non-litigation examples).”

        Yup. While the touching is definitely not-okay, showing up to an interview with cat hair is probably going to make the hiring team twitch – and while they probably won’t be so unprofessional as to remove it themselves, it will probably tank your chances at a lot of things. If it’s a choice between you and someone else equally qualified, then “please can we hire the one that doesn’t make me twitch with annoyance” will probably get said. The practice of law is all about minutiae, and the sort of people that make good lawyers are often the sort that get annoyed by little things like stray hairs.

        1. I don’t agree with this. Anyone who judges you because your clothes have a few hairs on them has a problem. In school you’re busy learning real stuff, this absolutely should not be a priority for you. If you are going to a job interview you will put aside different clothes and change them at the door. It will not require years of practice.

          1. And it’s not likely that LW started law school without knowing that law is a conservative field, appearance matters, etc.
            It seems really condescending to pretend they don’t know this and have their own ideas on how to deal with it.

          2. Knowing that appearance matters is not the same as knowing all the picky little things people in a particular field look at. It’s not condescending to think that a law student probably isn’t as familiar with law firm culture as someone who has been through the hiring process.

        2. The LW has not asked for anyone’s opinion on their clothing; they said clearly that it was not something they intended to change at the moment. What they have asked for is help dealing with a rude inappropriate person who refuses to keep their hands to themself.

        3. I HATE that there are parts of my own field where I won’t be able to advance if I don’t present myself a certain way. It’s super difficult for me for brain, ability, income, size, etc. reasons. (And I’m white and cis. It could be much harder). But also, not acknowledging the (dumb stupid classist) Cultural Rules of my field would create even more of a setback. There are places where I will probably never work not because of my abilities but because I can’t sustain the Look. It suuuucks. But it’s also reality and acknowledging it does help me work within those bounds.

        4. The Letter Writer is not going to show up to job interviews with cat hair and clearly knows the difference between professional dress and classroom dress. Let’s give ALL the cat hair & clothing management advice a break, please. Thanks!

    5. Not a lawyer, but currently in grad school in a very small field where we’re regularly reminded that our peers are our future professional network, so OP, I can relate to being concerned about your reputation. But if I saw an interaction between two of my classmates that went like this:

      A: I’ve asked you several times to stop touching me without permission. It’s unwanted and makes me very uncomfortable.
      B: But you have hair on you!
      A: I don’t care. Please don’t touch me.
      B: But it bothers me!
      A: That’s unfortunate, but that’s your problem, not mine. Don’t touch me ever again.

      I would absolutely be on A’s side. This is a really, really clear-cut case of boundary violations. It would make me think that B is, best case scenario, unprofessional and socially inept to a degree that I don’t want to work closely or be associated with; worst-case scenario, B is intentionally harassing A. As long as you don’t, like, punch B in the face or something ridiculous like that, I don’t think your reputation is the one at risk here. If you haven’t done so already, please feel free to have this conversation loudly and clearly around all your colleagues, and to escalate to whoever is responsible for harassment in your program if that isn’t enough to make it stop.

    1. Alternately:

      LW: “Stop touching me.”
      McHandsy: “But the cat hairs bother me!”
      LW: “It’s a bummer for you, but you’re just going to have to be professional about it.”

  9. If you are in law school, you have the added benefit of the fact that the curriculum itself pretty much covers the fact that unwanted touching – of any sort – is not ok. If you’re in the US, it’s 1L material. Frequently it’s even “first week of law school” level material that intent doesn’t matter if the touching is deliberate. And if you’re in another country, it’s still likely to be a tort.

    That should help with any conversation that goes beyond this classmate. If you’re asked to keep quiet or not make a fuss, it’s perfectly fair to say “How can someone practice law if they don’t even understand a fundamental concept of civil liability?”

  10. I’m a lawyer, and I can tell you – no one outside of law school cares about what happened IN law school unless it violated ethics or something equally awful. This woman is being an ass. Make a scene so she STOPS. You 100% have my support.

    (also, fwiw, the “making professional reputation” talk is generally geared to those who went straight from high school to college to law school and likely haven’t worked in a professional setting. I was 30 when I started law school, and as lovely as most of my classmates were, there was definitely a disconnect between their concept of professional life and reality. Even if you haven’t worked in a professional setting before now, you’ve got minimum nine years life experience over them – and the fact that you’re worried about not seeming professional tells me you’ll be just fine.)

    1. And, I mean, we talk about “professional reputation” in film school, too, but it’s stuff like “come to class on time, be engaged, be prepared, be reliable when you collaborate with others so that people will want to work with you.” It doesn’t mean “don’t speak up if shitty things are happening.”

      1. Exactly!

        And also, touching someone without consent can be considered battery, which is a /crime./ Typically it is not pursued without injury, but it does not change the fact that laying your hands on someone else’s person (or anything else closely connected to them like clothes) is a crime.

        (As a doc, we are warned in school to be very clear about obtaining consent to touch and treat patients because if there is a malpractice case over it, battery will be added to the list.)

        So yeah, this other lady touching the LW is a BIG deal (aside from all of the other points you made, CA). She probably does not want to be engaging in illegal behavior if her goal is to become an attorney.

    2. Ehhhhhhh… I’ve been in situations where law school conduct mattered that didn’t rise to, since we’re in the law school rabbit hole, something that would make a reasonable person exclaim, “outrageous!” But never something like “calmly and reasonably asserting physical boundaries about touching.”

      Like, I had a fellow student who backed out of a commitment to law review midway through the year, on a several-thousand dollar budgeted project. We were at the stage when we could just put it off for the next management team because we hadn’t signed any contracts, but a couple of years later she started a solo practice, and I had friends looking for expertise in her area that I could have referred to her (when I had no other referral names in that area) but didn’t because I wasn’t sure about her reliability. So, not egregious or unethical stuff on her end, but still damaged her professional reputation with me.

      1. There are definitely people I went to college with who I would not be in a hurry to recommend for broadly similar reasons. They didn’t do anything outrageously awful, but proved they were unreliable or incapable of considering the people around them (like that kid who played some game that involved constant mouse clicking in class. Waste mommy and daddy’s money if you like, but let the rest of us concentrate, okay?).

        That said, LW, the “establishing your professional reputation” bit really just means “don’t be a complete asshole to your professors or classmates”, not “you can never tell someone who is being shockingly rude to knock it off.” I mean, don’t go screaming profanities at Ms Grabby Hands or anything, but a loud, firm “DON’T TOUCH ME.” is 1000% reasonable in this situation.

        1. Exactly this. Being an ass or unreliable in law school is something that will make your classmates remember you not-fondly. Being assertive about someone touching you despite being told to stop? I assure you if anyone is going to get the “Oh HER” reaction from later colleagues, it will be Ms. Grabby, not you.

          1. Yeah, for sure. LW is gonna be fine as far as asserting herself goes, but I do think it’s worth validating her concern that her actions generally in law school will have some relationship to her professional reputation, since (unlike in college) she’s actually pretty likely to be coming across her peers on a regular basis (in my first year of practice, I had like 10 classmates in my year across the offices of the firm I joined and 2 classmates as opposing counsel, not to mention since).

  11. As a fellow befurred person, I sympathise. I’ve only the one cat and she doesn’t tend to proactively want to be picked up, so I’ve ended up doing “casual gear” at home which I wear until it needs a wash and doesn’t matter how much cat hair gets on it, and if I need to go out, I change into “clean clothes” which have a lot less visible hair (though I can never guarantee none!). But I’m well aware that’s a fairly simple separation for me which won’t work for most people, since I’m housebound a lot of the time and also have a cat who’s satisfied with a headrub before I go out – and besides, your clothes, your choice of fighting the encroaching fuzz or embracing the furdom!

    Also, I doubly sympathise on the “getting hair and fur picked off you” front. My mum has only recently got the message that I hate it when she reaches over to my chest without warning, and grabs a stray hair or a piece of fur. And especially so when we’re in a restaurant or somewhere else in public. Getting her to stop the reflexive reach-over is still a work-in-progress however. I think what helped for me, was actually articulating to her that it felt like I was three years old again when she did it. I can’t imagine how much more infuriating it must be when it’s a fellow student you’ve not long known who’s a decade younger than you.

    I suspect that my response to her “but it bothers me” would be something along the lines of:
    * “then you should sit/stand somewhere else where you don’t have to look at it”
    * “then I suggest you concentrate on the lecture/class/conversation until that feeling passes”
    * “and your solution is to violate my stated boundaries repeatedly?”
    * “and you think that makes it OK for you to ignore that I’ve told you to stop touching me over and over again? Spoiler: it doesn’t.”

    But mainly, I just like the Captain’s idea of catching both her hands like she’s a misbehaving child, looking into her eyes and stating loudly and clearly “[NAME], DON’T TOUCH ME.”

    1. For some reason my clothing seems to attract a lot of animal (cat and dog) fur at the bottom of pants (slacks for the Brits). Possibly because I walk everywhere, even in bad weather, and the area near to my shoes often ends up damp, sprayed with slush, and/or muddy. I wish that I could be perfectly clean all the time, but I have just decided to not let it worry me, and I really hope that no one notices the problem that far down!

      1. Trousers, really. ‘Slacks’ is one of those words you might see on a British shop’s website search function, but in conversation, the word’s going the way of ‘southern necessities’. And if we’re reviving one of those phrases, ‘southern necessities’ is definitely more fun to say. 🙂

    2. At Christmas a couple years ago, my mother casually reached up and scratched my face. She has rather long fingernails and my response was “OUCH!”
      “Oh, sorry, there was something on your face.” (It was a scab from a popped zit. Hence my cry of pain.)
      “Then why didn’t you just say, ‘there’s something on your face’, instead of clawing at me?!”
      To her credit, she did then apologize. However, my age at the time? Twenty-nine. More than old enough to wipe off my own shmutz if necessary.

    3. It sounds like she hasn’t gotten the message. If she had, she make it her responsibility to stop herself, which she is not doing.

      She may not choose to stop as long as you choose to keep letting it work out for her.

  12. Not a lawyer, but I worked in a law school as staff, working closely with faculty and students both. We had a issue where one student went nuclear-level friend-clinger on a student of the same gender. When Clinger violated a few too many boundaries with the student, the student responded by publicly, loudly, and assertively tell Clinger that it was NOT WELCOME, that Clinger was to BACK OFF, and that any further boundary pushing was going to be escalated to the college to deal with as a harassment issue. It was an entirely professional scene – student didn’t yell, or swear, or use insults – but student did get very Loud and very Firm and it definitely was a scene.

    Far from hurting student’s professional reputation, the consensus among the faculty (this happened at the beginning of a class) was that student’s assertiveness boded well for student’s ability to handle themselves in a courtroom. And indeed, student later proved in subsequent clinics that they were a passionate advocate for their client, and entirely comfortable “fighting” for them.

    1. True. Lawyers are expected to be able to handle conflict and stop unwanted behavior. Overly-amenable, people-pleaser and conflict-avoidant aren’t exactly looked-for qualities.

      1. “Overly-amenable, people-pleaser and conflict-avoidant aren’t exactly looked-for qualities.”

        Sidenote, I’ve explained to more than a few people my parenting approach which is…not very in line with “the norm” in America, and one of the things I say a lot is that I am not particularly interested in cultivating Obedience in my children – after all, no one ever looks up and says of an adult “I really admire how obedient Traffic_Spiral is.” (Not be be confused with Respectful, which I do aim for, but that’s Respect like Don’t Touch People Without Consent and Don’t Talk Over People and the like, not the Kowtow to Anyone Older Than You “version” of respect.)

        1. I had to leave a particular situation where the dominant philosophy was, “If the kid won’t do what you want, force them”. Matters came to a head one day when a little girl came in clearly very upset about something, and she wouldn’t tell me what it was. My response was, “Okay, you let me know if you change your mind and want to talk about, or, once you’re ready, we can do some reading. I’ll wait as long as you need.” She sat with her head on the table for about five minutes, then picked herself up and we read Curious George.
          I got REAMED OUT over this by my boss, for “wasting time” and “not using effective discipline”. I said I wasn’t going to discipline a child for being sad, and was informed that anything less than the child coming in and doing their work immediately was them misbehaving and must be “corrected”. It was all I could do not to say, “Wow, is it 1984 already?”

  13. Wow…some people are just wow. Whatever her excuses are they dont justify her behavior of ignoring what you say. In situations like this I like to tell them to stop in slightly escalating ways. I want to give people enough time to save face, up to a point. After that, if its awkward for them tough cookie they made it that way.

    “I’m sure you forgot, but I already told you to stop”. When she says “blah blah sisters blah blah i get to ignore your request” you get to reply with your biggest Dolores Umbridge smile “thats nice, I’m glad we agreed you are not going to touch me anymore”. Next time she touches you stop what every you were saying doing look at her for at least a solid 10 second and say “did you just touch me?” Fallowed up by “Its in you best interest to stop touching me” in a very cool flat voice. Im not sure how your class structure is like but if it reached that point I would want to let the professor know.

    Like the captain always says return awkward to sender.

  14. Her response is “It bothers me” as if that’s a valid excuse for breaching the sacred three foot bubble.

    True Fact: Cat’s hair bothers me. Also dogs. My response is to stand WAY out of arm’s distance of be-furred people and tell them that if they come closer I will start chain-sneezing and my sinuses will explode, so is it OK if we interact at a distance?

    My response does not include touching animal-hair, there’s no way I’m initiating physical contact with the irritant!

    (Memo to people who say “it’s just the dander not the hair: My sinuses don’t believe you.)

    1. Right! Lots of things bother me, so I just avoid them. Vapers at work? I’ll wave from a distance. Sister likes bright lights and the TV on all the time? We’ll visit each other at a chill restaurant. “It bothers me” does not require immediate and unmitigated correction.

    2. well, the dander is on the hair, and next to it—so even in a case in which a person’s allergy is just the dander, cat hair is going to trigger it.

      And, people’s allergies are different–you can be allergic to both.

      Also–who argues with the incontrovertible evidence that you are, right now, having a reaction? Insert eye-roll here.

    3. If someone else is allergic is the only reason I give a flip about whether I have animal hair on me. In which case, I keep my distance because I know that even if I don’t have hair on my clothes, my clothes live in my house, my full-of-shedding-machine-animals for 20+ years house, so I have to assume they are irritants.
      But if someone claimed they were trying to get animal hair off me because they are allergic, I’d probably lose sympathy, because as you say, if you’re allergic, why are you touching it?!

  15. I am the dog mother to a House Yeti, and he sheds like it’s going out of style – big bits of fawn colored fluff EVERYWHERE. And I love to wear black. So I have accepted my existence is to be covered in light dog hair all the time. I know your pain!

    I’ve had people try to pluck hairs off me, and my strategy is to immediately back away from them and hold my hands up, and say something cheerfully like, “Whoa, no touching! Thanks!” In the case of a repeat offender like Cohort, I would drop all cheeriness, go full bitchface, and be EXTREMELY FIRM with her. I have had to do this myself with repeat offenders. The bullshit excuse of “well it bothers me,” is met with “your touching me bothers me, so please stop.” And then stare at her in silence. Use silence as your weapon. Most people can’t handle being stared at in silence right after you rebuke them, so use it to your advantage. I think the keys to making a “professional” scene are to be clear and concise in your words, and hold your ground. You can be polite, you can be respectful, but be very firm and unwavering.

    If you’ve tried all this and she’s STILL doing it…I might escalate to your advisors/professors per Captain’s scripts.

  16. Reminds me of a one-time colleague interaction. I’m a teacher, but this was in a cafeteria setting, with another adult, an aide, I think. I and others were at a table, talking away. All was calm, no worries. Suddenly this woman comes behind me and just puts her hand FIRMLY on my back. I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything, but I just kept bending forward until I was head/chest on the table, and could not bend further. My whole being was just “STOPPPPP TOUCHINGGGGG MEEEEE”. She *finally* took her hand away, and I visibly shuddered in disgust and just to get her hand feeling OFF my back. I think I had “face of pain and anguish” expression on, too. She never repeated it, but I was prepared for a next time. Just “Don’t touch, take your hands off, I don’t like it, it does not feel good,” while also being prepared to move away, avoid, put hands up, and do the evasive dance. Just UGH at touchers.

    1. Your description sounds like when you put a sock or something on a cat’s face. RETREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. I have been known to pluck a cat hair or long shed human hair off someone’s sweater. Up until today, my thinking about it has mostly been below the level of active thinking about it…I think my motivation has mostly been something like “I would take this off my clothes, so they would like me taking it off for them.” Because I don’t touch the person (only the hair), I may have thought of it as more okay than turning a tag. (I will tell someone about a tag, but not touch it).

    I appreciate reading the responses about mixed reactions to the plucking. I should consider curbing these motherly/grooming impulses as potentially invasive.

    1. There’s also the embarrassment factor. Even if you are not actually touching me, you’re drawing attention to the fact that I have dog hair on me – and I am acutely aware of it, and I’m already kind of anxious about it, so I don’t want any extra attention! I totally get the impulse you describe – I get this impulse with other people regarding tags or stains or whatever – but the best bet is to just not mention it at all. If you feel like you need to, pulling someone aside and saying it quietly is the best way to go!

    2. You’re not touching a hair, you’re touching someone else’s clothes/body. It’s not appropriate to do that to strangers.

  18. This is great advice for Black women who have a problem with White people touching/wanting to touch their hair, a complaint I hear from Black women pretty often.

    Best line: The touching doesn’t have to be sexual in nature to be unwanted, or inappropriate.

    1. I’m so glad I read some activists talking about how inappropriate this is before I ever acted on the curiosity urge to touch hair that is different from mine. Sometimes it’s a strong urge, and I repeat in my head “do not touch do not touch” or clasp my hands or put them in my pockets until it passes.

      So I get someone feeling the strong urge to do something, and that the first time it happens it may not occur to them what it would feel like from the other perspective (I sure as shit wouldn’t want a rando stranger touching my hair without warning). But this woman has no excuse, she has been told repeatedly.

      1. Sorry if my tone came across as blunt Ikeke35, that wasn’t directed at you! Just annoyance at this inconsiderate woman in the letter. 🙂

      2. I’m glad you’re refraining. Do you also see how dehumanizing that is? That’s not just “hair that is different from” yours. That is a human being with a desire to move in the world as a person, not a curiosity. It might help to remember you’re not a little kid in a museum and that what is in front of you is not an object.

        1. No I get it, I have a friend that has such light floaty hair that I have always just want to floof it. I have never done so without permission, I did once (respectfully) ask if I could touch it and apparently she had always wanted to “boing” mine too so we had a nice consensual hair touching experience and neither of us saw each other as objects.

      3. You do realize that touching people’s hair means you’re touching them, right? It’s not that you’re hypothetically touching an object, you’re touching a person, inappropriately and in a really objectifying manner.

        1. Yes that’s what I’m describing – the first impulse is thoughtless and objectifying, but then I stop and think no, this a person and if someone did that to me I’d feel uncomfortable, so it’s the wrong thing to do.

  19. As a law student who’s faced this pressure to be professional, I’d take a different approach. First, I would have a private conversation with her and say something like, “Hey, you probably don’t realize this, but it makes me very uncomfortable when you touch me to remove cat hair from my clothes. I really don’t like to be touched. Even if you mean this in a good way, it’s very distracting and unpleasant for me. Now that I’ve told you about this, I need you to promise me you’ll stop.” If that doesn’t work, the next time she touches you, instead of yelling DON’T TOUCH ME, I suggest very calmly and reasonably saying “X, please stop touching me. I don’t like to be touched.” If she keeps on doing it or tries to justify it, SHE will look weird, not you. If you can have a friend there to back you up, the peer pressure will work even better. If push comes to shove, definitely follow the Captain’s advice, but this public shaming route seems more effective and has the benefit of preserving your reputation in the process.

    1. The LW has already tried gentle talks.

      I’m wondering what would happen if more people started with NOPE!!!! rather than ongping negotiation and escalation.

      1. I don’t have an answer but it’s the same when I get my hair styled people say oh u look so much better or u should wear your hair that way and I try and say it will look nice for today But I am not good with styling and they say well u could try

        I guess for u u could say

        Don’t touch
        It doesn’t seem like society wants to make peace with the fact that u live with three cats and don’t care if cat hair is on your clothes

        1. So much.
          I got a pro hair-and-makeup thing when I was a bridesmaid last summer, and got a LOT of “you could look like that every day if you tried!”

          No. That’s a set of skills I have no interest in developping, and spending this kind of time EVERY DAY?
          Nope. Nope nope.

      2. Anecdata:

        During my brief stint at Large Software Company, I had a cubiclemate: a college-age young man who was generally good company.

        Until the day he touched the top of my head (to be funny, I think. I don’t care.)

        I whipped around, fixed him with what I suspect was the “mom glare” amped up to about 1000, and said “DO NOT touch my head again. EVER.”

        He never touched my head again.

      3. I find that being really direct from the beginning, without the private conversation or polite niceties, means I don’t have to repeat my request as often as I do when being gentle with people . I also feel that this is a gendered conversation. Men can get away with saying “Stop touching me!” without being asked to gentle it up. I think we need to just start shutting off that part of the brain that turns on the nice when we’re trying to get people to stop doing something that’s bothering us. She is intruding on your space. It’s time for her to stop.

    2. Unless you are in a very non-confrontational area of law (contract review maybe?) you will end up confronting people, you will have to deal with people who are acting badly and on purpose, and you will NOT want those conversations to be private. I get the impulse to resolve things quietly as being more socially “correct”, but law is an adversarial profession. Being firm, direct and public while also being not an asshole is not always easy, but it’s something that’s a lot better to develop in law school than when a real case is involved.

  20. Dear LW,

    I, too, agree with taking her hands and saying “Stop! Don’t touch me!”

    If you don’t want to touch her at all, you might have success in putting your arm out in a “Stop!” gesture as you speak.

    Also, document this behavior. I don’t recommend threatening to tell the authorities before hand (because she might get to them first). I do recommend informing your advisor (or the office of professional standards or whatever it is) now. Here’s a script:

    I’d like to give you a heads up about a situation that has been troubling me. HandsyClassmate won’t stop fiddling with my clothes. I’ve asked her to stop touching me, and she apparently can’t. I’m concerned because it’s very unprofessional to touch people’s clothing, especially without consent.
    Going forward, what do you recommend to stop her?

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  21. I do martial arts in a branch where ‘manhandling’ is part and parcel of training exercises. Yet the first time I told my teammates (early 20s, most if them) I didn’t like being hugged without permission, they not only understood, they REMEMBERED and didn’t put me in a position where I had to make a scene to get my point across. My mother on the other hand is known to push me until I want to scream at her to STOP IT ALREADY I SAID NO!


    I had a point there… LW, being young or from a big family doesn’t mean automatically you cannot learn boundaries. This isn’t about you being nice, it’s about your classmate exercising impulse control and showing you respect as a fellow adult.

  22. With regard to the boundary-pushing classmate, I think the Captain’s advice is exactly right. If your response is always calm and measured about it, then it’s much harder to paint you as “the unreasonable one”. Calm and measured isn’t the same thing as “pushover” and you can definitely push back about this sort of behavior.

    If you like, you could also alert the staff in the guise of “asking for advice about the situation” (especially helpful if you feel there’s a non-zero chance that she might try to tank your reputation).

    With regard to the cat hair situation, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve always had cats, and they seem to shed constantly. If the hair isn’t in my clothes, it’s trying to get into my food. 🙂

    It wasn’t so bad when I was working minimum wage retail (due to lack of caring).

    But I work a professional job these days, inside a very large organization. Cat hair on my work clothes is no longer an option for me.

    And since you’re heading into law – I’m guessing the same will soon be true for you?

    If so, and you’d like some tips, read on:

    I tried a lot of things initially, and ended up settling on “keeping a lint roller near the front door, and another roller in my car, and a tiny roller in my purse” so that I could give myself a quick once-over any time I noticed cat hair on me as I was heading to work.

    But it was a lot of work, and the results weren’t THAT great. There was still a chance there would be a few hairs on me that I’d missed.

    But then one day it hit me. The perfect solution (for my situation, at least).

    The clothes I wear at work are generally very different from the clothes I wear at home.

    So now I keep them completely separate.

    I get up in the morning, take care of the beasts, give them pats and hugs, THEN I get changed into my work clothes. No more pats, no more hugs. Just straight out the door.

    Then when I get home, I immediately get changed into ‘around home clothes’. My work clothes immediately get put on a hanger/in a dedicated hamper etc. I’m free to play with the hairy beasts, and my work clothes are safe.

    I wash the work clothes separately from the around home clothes, so the hair doesn’t transfer that way.

    And it works really well. I always know I have cat-hair-free clothes available for when I need to go to work/go out etc

    But when I’m at home, I don’t have to worry about it – because I’m wearing clothes that I don’t mind being covered in hair.

    1. LW here, I do all those same things. It’s largely a storage issue. I don’t live in a place with a separate work – clothes closet. And with my kiddos being indoor only, there’s a fair bit of closet – lurking they do. Cuz yeah, I always change into house clothes as soon as I’m home (it’s comfier that way) and I have lint rollers stashed about the place for general de-furring.

      Hopefully I can afford a place with more closet space once I’m practicing, in the mean time I and my cats (who treat me like food and cuddle – dispensing piece of furniture) will continue grappling with the issue of their hair everywhere.

      1. It’s a struggle! but honestly, even if you never lint-rolled and showed up covered in cat hair, your classmate would STILL not be entitled to touch you without your consent. Part of being professional is respecting others’ autonomy, especially personal space.

  23. It super bugs me when I see people’s collars sticking out, or when I notice long hairs on someone’s shirts (I have 3 cats so short animal fur is just a way of life for me). My mom loves it when I “de-hair” her, but I know that about her, and know I don’t have to ask. With others, I always check first. “Hey, I noticed your collar is sticking out, may I fix that/would you like me to get it for you?” “You have a hair on your sleeve, fyi” and then if they have trouble finding it, asking if they’d like me to grab it for them. It should always be the hairified person’s choice.

    1. Yeah, same with my mom, my kid, and me. But–and this is critical–we all say something before we touch each other. “Mom, you’ve got a bit of lint in your hair,” “[DesertRose], you’ve got a strand of hair on the back of your shirt.” (and my hair is waist length and quite dark, so it’s pretty noticeable unless I’m wearing black clothing), “Kiddo, your tag is sticking out of the back of your top,” or something along the same lines.

      And sometimes Kiddo has her tag out on purpose, because she inherited my grandmother’s (Mom’s mother) hypersensitive skin (my grandmother used to grab the seam ripper and remove the tags on all her clothing), so that’s another reason to say something to her before “fixing” the tag.

      Basically, paws off other people unless they say you can touch them or (as sometimes applies to Kiddo, since she’s a nurse) you’re a medical professional and they’re in medical distress.

  24. Oh gosh, I sympathize with the LW so much here. I’m not a pet owner but I am someone who just always is a bit scruffy no matter what I do. It’s pretty normal I’ll have something “off” about my appearance, regardless of how hard I try for this not to be the case. I am really embarrassed by this, tbh, and hate it. Therefore, having helpy people adjust my appearance is something I personally find humiliating. Yes, if I’m going to go into a big presentation let me know my tag is out. If my fly is down, sure, tell me. But other than that I wish people would just leave me alone to be unkempt.

    But I know a couple people who use the “It bothers me” reason for “fixing” me and those are the worst because it’s like….OK, your personal like/dislike should never mean it’s OK for you to change something about *me* or insist that i do. It bothers you that I’m wearing two different socks? I’m not under any obligation to change that. It “sets you off” if something on me is askew? Still doesn’t make it ok for you to reach out and fix it. I’ve had someone claim they are OCD so they “have” to fix my clothes if they are uneven (no idea if they are actually or just using the term colloquial but either way no please stooooop.)

    I realize my whine is a bit different from the OP since it isn’t just touching I hate but the constant.commenting.

    1. My personal rules of thumb… rule of thumbs… my general idea is avoid comments about how someone looks mostly unless they ask for them, only comment negatively on something that can be changed immediately (something in your teeth, skirt tucked, fly down), and only comment positively on things that are in someone’s control (hair dye like blue or green or pink, cool makeup, neat tattoos).

      Works pretty well for me.

  25. I recently experienced something similar.. a coworker just liked to be very near me, and just reach for my arm, or even step on my foot as a form of contact. I had tried to jerk my arm in response, keep my feet really apart when standing to try to keep him at bay (hence the stepping on my foot) but he just.didn’t.get.it.
    The last time he tried something, he sneaked behind me and tried to whisper really close to my face (from behind!! uugh just remembering this makes me irk). I said loudly: “I have told you before, I don’t like to be touched”.
    He tried to downplay it as if it was not a big deal, but since he made the mistake of doing that in front of another person (I think it was a mistake because I feel predators thrive on the plausible deniability of a private interaction), I called him on it.
    I said: “I just wanted to talk about this in front of someone else just so there is no question in anybody’s mind that what I am saying has absolutely any other meaning: I do not like it when YOU come too close to me or when you touch me”.
    I think the most important part of the interaction is that when he tried to interject and start giving excuses or reasons, I just cut him off because ultimately my request shouldn’t have to be justified. I did not care about his reasons, I just wanted him to stop.
    It took EVERY OUNCE of my courage but that guy has not come too close to me ever again.

    This guy had a track record for behaving like that with other people and I was so worried that people were going to think I was a “bitch” for calling him out on this thing I thought bothered only me, and the funny part is that.. people didn’t! It turns out.. being assertive and direct are a great assets for one’s reputation, specially in my professional environment. Who would have guessed?

    Stand your ground. This is a great opportunity for you to demonstrate (if not to other people, to yourself) that you can handle whatever uncomfortable situation comes your way. Good luck out there.

    1. This is a great point. In almost every workplace I’ve encountered where I was having problems with a coworker, HR’s first question was: “Have you told them to stop doing x?”

      1. Yeah, and that is problematic and unprofessional of HR. The more correct question is something like, “Have you felt able/safe to tell them to stop doing X?” The phrasing has to account for the fact that it may not be safe for the employee to tell the problem person to stop.

        In my workplace, the policy says the first step is to tell them to stop doing X, IF you feel able to do so. If not, go to step 2. When I had to invoke it, I was scared as hell, but realized that if I could show that I had sent an email to the problem person firmly writing out that I was telling them AGAIN not to do X, that it would make things go faster, plus it would confirm my manager’s impression of me as someone who could handle something like that smoothly, as unnerving as it was. And that email also went into the file of records being compiled in case my workplace didn’t handle the matter and I needed to involve the local legal jurisdiction.

  26. I would probably recommend framing her knocking it off as something that she’s going to have to learn to do for her own good. Next time she does it, tell her yet again to knock it off. And when she doesn’t, just say to her: “So, when the senior partner in your firm likes to wear dark suits but has a golden retriever who thinks he’s a lap dog, are you going to insist on picking dog hair off his fly? Or pick hairs off your client’s suit? Or off the judge’s robes? You’re going to have to learn to manage this compulsion some day. Consider me practice. If you can’t figure this out, and stop touching me, I’m going to have to talk to the staff here about your professionalism.”

    1. I was just coming here to say something similar. She probably manages to not pick cat hair off the cop who pulled her over for speeding. Or her boss. Or that burly biker guy. She CAN control herself.

      1. Yes, just like other people who ‘can’t help’ losing their temper or ‘just are’ rude and aggressive seem mysteriously to be suddenly struck with the ability to be polite when they are around their boss.

        1. I’ve had two bosses who “couldn’t” control their tempers. Boss A only blew up down the food chain. Boss B constantly shot himself in the foot yelling at exactly the people he shouldn’t have, and constantly lost clients.

          Guess which one could, actually, control their temper but secretly didn’t want to?

  27. I have to disagree with this part of the Captain’s advice: “If you’ve got suggestions for how to make this stop, I’m all ears!” because you haven’t done anything wrong, LW, and it’s not your job to “manage” someone else’s bad behaviour.

    Personally, i’d put the blame there – and the requirement to change – firmly where it belongs, and change that line to something like:

    “If you’ve got suggestions for how to make *her* stop, please *tell her* to knock it off!”

    Context: I have hair down to mid-thigh, which means people will stroke it, pick it up and touch it just because its unusually long, and also that loose hairs can wrap right around (especially my arms or armpits) so you can’t just pluck it away.

    My most successful cjhoice is to go primary school teacher/parent back at the violators: I gently pick their hand up and play-smack the back of it once, while firmly saying “NO! Don’t touch!” and then shake a finger at them.

  28. Another suggested reaction might be a flinch/glare and “Control yourself!” with a what-is-wrong-with-you facial expression. It isn’t a big scene, it isn’t an ongoing argument, it doesn’t have anything open for discussion – you’ve already told her not to touch you. Now you’re just giving her the immediate feedback and putting the problem on her head directly rather than trying to make nice and share the burden.

    This is not a problem you share, this is a problem *she* has that she can’t stop touching strangers. If people are silently judging you for having cat hair, that is your problem, and you’ve accepted it as such. Not being able to tolerate normal amounts of disarray? That one is on her.

  29. A good hard startle/flinch response is surprisingly effective on some of this stuff. If you can jump as if she burned you, in the moment, while keeping right on with the conversation, you look (to the bystanders) much more sympathetic. If she brings attention it verbally, a flat, “you startled me, please don’t touch” will do.

    (I don’t know, temperamentally, why some people flinch and others freeze up, but I seem to have a little mental leeway towards telling myself that flinching is ok.)

  30. Many great scripts here, but I would delete “please” everywhere. The time to use “please” is long past.

    “I have asked you to stop touching me. Now I’m telling you: Stop. Touching. Me. I Do. Not. Care. why you do it. STOP. IT.”

    1. But “please” is so USEFUL. Please is your plausible deniability. Please doesn’t have to prevent you from bringing out the ice-cold voice, using the death glare, raising your voice, grabbing her hand and holding it in a slightly painful grip, or any other necessary escalation. And yet it genuinely does make it harder for them or other people to accuse YOU of being the one making it weird.

      When you DO drop the “please”, you can switch to “Thank you.” As in “Don’t ever touch me. I don’t like it. Thank you.”

      1. I hear you, and that’s where “I have asked you to stop” comes in. The problem with “please” is it can also be Miss Handsy’s plausible deniability when she interprets “please” as a request, not an absolute.

        And in a situation like this, I’d be done any soft edges, so if I said “thank you”, it would probably be through clenched teeth.

        1. Mmm, fair point. I was picturing “thank you” through BARED teeth, myself.

          I think at that point it comes down to which one LW feels they can deliver better. Local custom and individual style make a difference.

        2. How is that deniability? “She ASKED me to stop touching her, so I refused!” is not going to get her very far with, well, anyone.

          The problem here isn’t that Handsina is clever, it’s that she is one of those people for whom “But I want” is the most important principle in the world.

          1. “Oh! I didn’t realize how much it bothered you!!”
            I suspect Handsy is one of those people who think “please” makes it optional. In her mind, it’s okay until you whap her upside the head with a 2×4 of NO.
            Either way, she’s definitely the kind of person “what part of NO don’t you understand” was invented for.

  31. I have a cat too, and I love her, über-sheddy fluffbutt and all, but the hair cats shed is LITTER. Seriously, I think my cat is laaaaaaaughing her saggy ole bum off whenever she sees me walk around with her discarded winter couture all over my clothes. “Contemptible human. Covering your inferior fabrics with my leavings. You are fooling no one.”

    I’d never touch other people without their express permission, but you can bet your bottom half I would keep TELLING them to brush themselves the @#&$ off already, if they came in every day with cat hair all over everything. Then they could do what they like with that.

    …well, okay, unless it’s just a stray hair or two here and there.

    1. Yeah, I’d be very frustrated if a colleague kept nitpicking my appearance like that. In most jobs, most of the time, something like cat hair just isn’t that big a deal. There are specific roles and moments where appearance is unusually important, but even then, “you need to change your appearance to meet professional standards in this field” is a message that needs to come from a manager whose job it is to explain those standards, not from a random coworker who has a pet peeve. The vast, vast majority of the time, harassing your coworker over their pet hair is going to be significantly more unprofessional than the fact that they have pet hair on their clothing.

    2. Yeah, no.

      I barely tolerate people telling me my bag is open. (Yes, I know it is open, I’m reaching for my wallet.) I wouldn’t be happy with someone who repeatedly commented on my untidiness.

      Consider not commenting, and please don’t touch.

    3. You can do that. I’d tell you EXACTLY where to go, though, if you did.

      And then I would keep telling you, loudly and with increasing vehemence, that this is not your business and to keep your unwanted opinions to yourself. And you could do what you like with that.

  32. Is she going to pick at her future colleagues’ clothing? Her clients’? A courtroom witness or judge? Whatever her “problem” with cat hair or minor imperfections is, you’ll be doing her a favor by hard stopping it so she can stop pretending it’s acceptable and find some other way to cope.

    If I went to a lawyer (or any professional providing a service to me, for that matter) who commented on pet hair on my clothing, much less reached over and touched me to correct it, I’d be getting another lawyer right quick-o. She is definitely the one making things weird and awkward, not you.

    1. Now I can’t get the images out of my mind of her being called into meetings in various judges’ chambers and then just having away at picking at their clothing. Talk about a “career limiting maneuver”.

      1. A college professor of mine once told a story of her most embarrassing moment. She was talking with an elderly gentleman, a renowned scholar in their academic field. She decided to helpfully remove a hair she notice on his collar. Turned out it was attached…to his face.

  33. I had a problem in medical school where people would touch me or throw things in the lecture hall and I would startle and then fall over from poor balance. Sadly, it was different people all the time so I couldn’t ask them individually not to touch me. . . 257 times. About the third time I fell over in the lecture hall, I asked a student on the honor board in charge of professionalism if they could put out some sort of announcement asking people not to throw things in the lecture hall. They did not think this fell within their purview of peer-enforcement of professional behavior. I pled to my dean, who told me to talk to people individually. Which, you know, I tried to do as I was clumsily picking myself up off the floor afterwards, and I never really got the sense they connected their behavior to the result. Finally I stopped standing up in the lecture hall until all my classmates had left the room.

    It terrified me that medical students had not learned to keep their hands to themselves and not to throw things indoors in a space that was not designed for sports. I suppose “first year medical school” and “first year law school” sort of sound like “first grade”?

    1. They have a throwback to it in Andromeda as well.

      But yeah – if it’s not yours, don’t touch it! Kindergarten 101.

  34. Lawyer who went to law school in my 30s chiming in again. Suggested answers to “it bothers me”:

    – “I don’t care.”
    – “That is your problem, not mine. Stop touching me.”
    – “Then go find another seat so you don’t have to look at it any more.”
    – “Oh my f*cking god, stop touching me!”
    – “You are bothering *me* by getting into my personal space and touching me. Stop it and don’t ever do it again. I’m not sure how much more I need to say for you to take me seriously.”

    Don’t worry about being “rude.” Go ahead and lose it at her, since evidently she hasn’t heard the message clearly enough yet. Lawyers should never make guarantees, but I guarantee you that verbally pushing back in an “rude” way won’t reflect on your post-law school professional reputation. Rather, being assertive will look more professional than stewing about it or trying to be indirect or trying to not hurt her feelings. (I mean, it’s not great that law school can be a real “f*ck your feelings” kind of place, but not taking things personally is one of the skills that we can sharpen while we’re there.)

    I would hesitate, though, about going to the administration. Different schools have different cultures, but I’d be concerned that they’d look at you funny and wonder why you haven’t been able to clear up this problem on your own. I’d definitely make sure I said something forcefully and loudly — and in front of other students — before I escalated to the administration.

    1. Touching people without their permission, especially after being told to stop, is rude. All politesse in the situation has been tossed out the window—by Handsy McGee. So it’s safe to say LW is not obligated to manage her feelings about the consequences of her own rudeness.

    2. THIS.

      Also, “F your feelings” goes both ways. If you are assertive, nobody is going to have an ounce of sympathy for Grabby whining about how mean you were.

  35. Any time someone touches me without permission – especially one particular person who frequently “can’t help herself” – I shout “OW!” loud enough to get attention and for her to jump back.

    Nobody but you knows whether contact actually is painful, or whether it was your feelings that were hurt rather than your body. And that’s fine. It gets attention in the moment and gives them a reason to stop right now. So what if they “didn’t mean…” or were “only trying to help…”? Now they know if they touch you, you will shriek and it will bring unwanted attention. Sure, the first few times I was nice and asked her not to, but now I divert straight to OW!

    It works for me.

    1. Years ago when I was young and single I went on a date with a guy. I was really young and really inexperienced with the whole “flirting” thing. He made some comment, I laughed and sort of slapped at his shoulder. It was meant to be playful in that “oh you sweet thing” kind of way that old movies always had the heroine do but came out as an awkward tap. There was no force behind it at all but he actually stood up and said “Oh. I didn’t realize you were a hitter. I don’t date that type of girl” and then he left me sitting at the table while he walked out on our date I have never touched someone without permission since (husband and kids have given me carte blanche permission, but the second they say stop, it stops). It also made me hyper aware of how many times people try to touch me without permission and since that date so long ago I’ve actually become a champion for those who don’t enjoy being touched.

  36. I grew up in an environment where invading people’s personal space was the norm – it was literally grooming behaviour, because there are abusive jerks of all genders in every type of space.

    I don’t do personal contact – even shaking hands it difficult for me. Often I just wave. So shit like this – casual, explicit disregard for a person’s personal space – really upsets me.

    It really doesn’t matter why you don’t want people touching you. They shouldn’t touch you.

  37. I would suggest coupling your “no” with a large step backwards or move so you’re physically dodging her, if you have the space to do so, so that she can’t actually reach you. I do this with people’s asshole dogs that try to jump all over me. It usually works pretty well. It should work even better on a human 🙂

    PS: People out there with asshole dogs—not everyone likes to be jumped on or thinks it’s “cute” or “friendly”, so please keep your dogs to yourselves and train them better.

  38. Yeah, LW, this person is the one being rude and unprofessional. And if you’re beating yourself up about not being assertive enough, then can I recommend this reframing: developing the skill of being firm and enforcing reasonable and professional boundaries (aka ‘do not touch me’) is good for you as well as good for her in the long term. A lot of people have to learn by experience how to deal with weird and unreasonable people doing rude and unacceptable things, and it’s better for you to learn in law school when it’s lower-stakes. It’s a good opportunity for you to work on this skill, so if/when you run into people doing this in the future, you can act in your best interest again.

  39. I’m very much a don’t touch me person. A few people have passes to hug me or whatever, but the list is probably less than 10 people total including family. And people just don’t get it.

    My dad legitimately thought I wasn’t giving him hugs because I didn’t like him, for about two years before I casually mentioned I don’t like them.
    My mother doesn’t get boundaries at all. She constantly paws at my hair/jumpers/knitting (while I’m actively knitting it) and then sulks when I jerk away and tell her to stop. She was just “being nice”.

    Even friends I know through the kink scene who are theoretically way more up on boundaries and consent issues seem to forget I don’t want hugs. Last time I saw some of them, a guy commented I wave strangely. By putting both arms in front of me and alternating circling them. Not a classic wave – maybe. A great place to block incoming hugs from – absolutely.

    A friend who I go to social places with has started jokingly going around other people doing “hugs for valvopus” which works quite well.

  40. Would she do that to a judge? To opposing counsel? No? Then she can easily not to do it you, and it’s certainly not professional to, and she’s risking damaging her own reputation

  41. I worked in journalism for a long time. It’s a fairly casual profession in many ways — I mean, the hard-core folks wind up sleeping on the office couch and wearing the same outfits for days, etc. It’s also smallish, even in a middle-sized city like mine.

    A boss of mine once walked up to me and said, ‘This woman has applied for a job, I think you both worked at the same place for a while?’

    I glanced down to see Andy’s name. Andy who had sat next to me for three years at my first job when we were all still young and fresh faced. She did good work but managed to alienate everyone on the team with her personal *everything*. She was a toxic creature, and a big part of it was a lack of boundaries and a lack of respect for other’s boundaries. I recoiled from the resume, physically jerked back, and said, “If you hire her, I’ll quit.” I hadn’t laid eyes on her in five years but that animus remained.

    My boss blinked, wadded up the resume and tossed it in the garbage.

    I heard through the grapevine some years later that she never got another job on the East Coast and had to move to the West Coast, so I suspect that I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction. How you behave is a big part of your reputation, beyond your work. Setting a boundary for this woman may help her in later in her life and more importantly it will make your life easier.

  42. I think I’d be inclined to slap her hand away the minute she started, but that’s just me. Perhaps not a great idea.
    Jumping and startling with a yelp or loudly saying “stop that!!!” may have to be enough if the LW has to work with Feely McGrabsalot for a while longer.
    I was standing on a street corner waiting to cross once when some woman rea hed out and tucked a tag in on the back of my shirt collar. I think I jumped about three feet in the air.

    1. Tip: if you can block with your whole forearm it looks more defensive and less offensive, and also protects a larger surface of your body.

  43. Y’all know that I’m from a Guess Culture and am sometimes cynical about the effectiveness of hard no’s. But LW: this is what hard no’s are for. You’ve tried soft no’s. She has continued to TOUCH YOUR PERSON. This is quintessential, fundamental “she’s the one making it weird”. She absolutely! cannot! continue to groom! other people! and frankly you could reasonably take this to someone who supervises you in this program on the grounds that she might, as the Captain said, damage her own professional standing through unwanted sweater-picking.

    As someone from a fairly passive-aggressive Guess Culture, I would STILL catch her hands or step away from her and say “I need you to stop doing that right now,” with an extremely unfunny tone and fixed eye contact. Or throw out the big bugaboo of professional programs and say “This is really unprofessional and I hate it. STOP.”

    Frankly, if she genuinely can’t stop (and I say this as someone who, um, takes a medication for OCD) then that is 1) not your problem 2) a problem she actually needs to address instead of using it as a social excuse for unwanted touching. Personally, I suspect she means more that she just really feels like doing it, which again, as someone who takes medication for OCD, that’s… really irritating.

    (Also, personal reaction: I have a contact allergy with cats, and re: sweater picker: EW EW EW EW EW. I know and can account for the fact that people have beloved pets and don’t burn all their home clothes before coming out into public. That’s normal and expected and I can take medication if it starts bothering me. But does Sweater Picking Lady have to pick at it and get it on her fingers and floof it up in the air and touch a bunch of stuff augh. In general, someone frantically trying to brush cat hair off things is so much worse for my allergies than someone just leaving it alone.)

    (If she is trying to communicate that it’s going to be a huge professional issue to have cat hair on your clothes, wow she can do that without passive-aggressive unwanted touching, and actually I think that that would be a good reason to take this to an instructor or adviser. If they come back with “the secret rules of this profession involve spending 35 minutes every morning lint-rolling yourself” then, you know, at least you know. But it still isn’t unwanted touching! Augh.)

  44. Captain is wise. A yelp or exaggerated jump may also encourage her to stop and a snapped “can you not?” Remember the one being difficult is the repeat pawer, not the unwilling pawee. Best of luck! – a lawyer with long blonde hair who moults on an Olympian level in possession of a white bulldog

  45. I don’t think you even need to make a scene. Just tell her quietly and firmly that you have asked her not to touch you and that if she does it again, you will make a formal complaint. If *she* makes a scene after that, it’s on her.

    It’s SO inappropriate too, tho. Imagine if she did that with a client!

  46. In grade school, I had a friend with long blonde hair who liked to wear a navy blue wool jacket. I have absolutely BLISSFUL memories of pulling bits of her hair off of her jacket. It really was immensely satisfying. I think it’s a monkey thing.

    However: (1) we were nine years old, and (2) she would sit down with her back to me and say, “Want to clean me?” People can’t just go around satisfying their primate grooming needs on other people without their consent.

    So this is another voice on your side, letter writer: what she’s doing is unprofessional and Not OK, and you shutting it down is perfectly professional and OK.

  47. I know I’ve commented once, but is it just me… or is this yet another Incredibly Gendered Thing that women and female-presenting people have to go through? One of the millions of reasons I’m a non-touch, not huggy person is that I’m female, about 5’5″, and I have a kind face. I’m also overweight/chubby and apparently I look very approachable. Therefore I have cultivated an air of “Do not EVER think of approaching me or chatting me up” and out in public, no males ever chat me up, so something is working. I can’t tell if it’s my my absolute refusal to make eye contract, or my absolute, utter refusal to smile. I keep an extremely neutral to downright scowly expression out in public.

    Still, that said, I can’t tell you how often I have to fend off people touching me. It’s unconscious on the most part and I’m not just talking about a tap to get attention. I’m talking about people Putting Hands On My Person, as in trying to move me out of the way (!) and it’s just not at all okay. And every single time I flinch, startle, yell, and let them know they are violating my space. I wonder how many men are subject to this, or have even noticed this. I have a totally unverified, unproven hunch that women are touched far more than men are at all, and most men don’t know it’s an issue, don’t know why, and would (*headdesk*) “welcome” being touched. Gahhh.

    1. Oh, it is absolutely gendered. Women aren’t supposed to have boundaries, or authority over who touches their bodies, or in fact consider ourselves sole owners of our bodies. And it makes me mad enough to scream.

      The owner of the bar where my brother works likes to come up behind me when I’m visiting and put his arm over my shoulders to greet me and converse with me. Last time this happened, I scooched out from under him and right off the bar stool and said, “Don’t do that.”

      He says, “Why not?” Like it’s up for debate.

      I wish I’d just said, “Because I told you not to, end of story.” (I wish I’d said so from the comfort of my chair, instead of giving ground.) Instead I got flustered and felt pressured to come up with a good enough reason for telling him not to touch me! I suppose I owe myself credit for just saying “Don’t do that” in a forthright manner.

      But now I have an extra reason not to want him to touch me: Because he’s demonstrated he will argue with me over whether he gets the right to touch me.

      Guarantee he wouldn’t have done it to his employee’s hypothetical brother.

      1. “Because I don’t like it” (repeat ad nauseum until he gets the picture) should do the trick.

        I work in the restaurant industry and you wouldn’t believe how many (especially white) men behave like they are entitled to everything in space, even other people’s bodies. From just standing in everyone’s way with a drink in their hand to grabbing the (female) server because they want to take a picture. And of course, saying anything to them about it (like, “Stop” or “No”) gets them all pissed off, because how dare you not recognize that everything exists primarily for their comfort and gratification, even yourself. You’re just an object for their enjoyment, after all.

        1. [Content note: Oblique mention of PTSD symptoms, unwanted touching in the workplace, threatened violence.]

          Yeah, back when I worked in the restaurant industry (answering phones for a pizza delivery joint), one of the cooks (white dude, I’m a white woman and at the time I was about seventeen) came up behind me to ask a question about an order I’d sent back to the cook table.

          Which in and of itself would have been fine, but he did so by coming up behind me during supper rush on a Friday (noisy-as-fuck environment) and announced his presence by slinging his arm around my waist while resting his chin on my shoulder.

          I had a hellacious startle response then (it’s a little less hellacious two decades plus later), and I wheeled around and came within about two inches of slapping his face so hard I’d have turned his neck for him if I hadn’t realized I was at work and probably ought not slap the shit out of a coworker, especially with the store manager three feet away.

          He got a formal written reprimand for touching a coworker in an unprofessional fashion, and I got a brief verbal reprimand from the manager that basically went, “If you’d actually hit him, I’d have had to write you up too. He’s not going to do that any more upon penalty of losing his job, so can you please not come close to decking your coworkers?”

          She was an awesome manager. 🙂

          But being a woman/a person perceived as feminine in food service can suck like whoa.

      2. That happened to a friend of mine when we were both visiting a common friend – her husband (who is a certified CREEPER) came up behind her and squeezed her shoulders. She gasped and twisted away and said, “Don’t come up behind me and touch me like that!”

        He said, “Why?”

        I looked at him and said, “That’s not enough of a reason??”

        He opened his mouth with, “I only meant–” and ended up turning around and leaving the room and we didn’t see him for a couple hours.

        He was one of those smarmy assholes that would stomp boundaries like that with, “But you know I’m not like that!” and trying to cultivate this ‘lovable scamp’ persona that he thought would get him around those boundaries even though he was Like That. UGH. He’s the reason I don’t talk to his wife anymore 😦

  48. “we’re establishing our professional reputations”

    She is establishing a reputation as someone who stomps boundaries that she doesn’t like. Hopefully she’ll have to deal with some blowback.

  49. Oh, dear LW, I feel your pain! I also know this type of person – though here in Scandinavia behaviour like this would in most places be doomed widely inproper but still we have people like that in here. For example an old acquintance: he was a well educated adult male and still, time after time every time he met my friend he would take his hat and put it on his head. My friend hated it as would have I – and still he just kept doing it. Luckily we became estranged from the hat napper so I do not have to stand his behaviour anymore.

    I love The Captain’s scripts, they are spot on – and The Captain is right: this behaviour is not professional and correcting it now will really be a service to your cat hair picking colleague. I also completely agree with The Captain: we must begin putting people’s comfort and well-being first and that includes the right to not be touched.

    Stay strong and please pet your lovely feline babies for me! Warm greetings from another cat hair covered happy human being.

  50. I’d like to chime in with a success story.

    I have PTSD from trauma including multiple rapes, and have problems with lots of things as a result, including with being touched (also with eye contact, sexual jokes and people not respecting no in any setting). With the help of lots of therapy and personal work on assertievness and boundaries I have got a point where I am clear on when it is reasonable to just work around things and when it is reasonable to push back – for example I can’t avoid being touched in my work so I just have to suck that up, but I will not tolerate a fitness instructor “jokingly” trying to hug me or a meditation teacher pushing my shoulders down when I have my eyes shut “because I look tense”; in a social setting I accept that people don’t *have* to stop making their jokes even if I say it upsets me, I can just leave, but those same jokes being made by a colleague in a workplace or by an instructor of a fitness class is not acceptable.

    I have kind of turned into COMPLAINT WOMAN™, but I have also now fine tuned an escalation strategy which works well for me and has gotten me the desired result on a number of occasions now:

    1. Speak up in the moment (if you can, it is sometimes hard if you are badly triggered) or soon afterwards, stating what the behaviour is that you are objecting to, what your issue with it is (eg “your touching me makes me uncomfortable”, “your jokes are inappropriate in the workplace” etc), and clearly stating that you would like it to stop.

    2. If it happens again I use stronger language (eg using the word “harassment” in describing their behaviour, because that is what it is if you’ve already made it clear you’d like the behaviour to stop) and I’ll add the warning that if they do not stop I will escalate to making a formal complaint. Depending on the setting I may do this step in writing. In the past I have also sought advice from the police at this point but without making a formal complaint (when a neighbour tried to insist on discussing our fence dispute on my front porch alone in the dark, and wouldn’t leave until I threatened to call the police).

    3. If they still don’t stop I will make a formal complaint to the relevant authority, and if this isn’t responded to in the way I would like or the behaviour recurs, I will keep escalating up the chain, providing details of all previous attempts at resolution/correspondence, until I get the desired result ie no touching, no jokes about your husband’s penis while you’re teaching a fitness class.

    The key is to stick to facts/observed behaviours, keep it polite but firm, and stay safe: make sure you have emotional and /or physical support through this process; if the response to the complaint is really unsatisfactory and suggests a dysfunctional or abusive culture – run away and don’t look back; and don’t hesitate to involve police if necessary for your safety.

    1. zaracat, you are a fantastic COMPLAINT WOMAN ™! The fact that there are “complaint women” makes it much easier for all the harrassed people, so thank you! You rock!

      Also, very good advice.

      I have been there, too, with an abusive neighbour: one winter we had so much snow that it was affecting our ability to use our parking lot and a neighbour came to our door, screaming that I should move our car this instant. My child was scared out of his wits; he was small and began to cry and still the neighbour kept on screaming. I really filed an official police report stating that the neighbour was forcing me to illegal activity (I had no driver’s lisence at that time) and was disturbing the peace of our house (also a crime in many Scandinavian countries). That solved the situation. The neighbour bothered us no more and indeed apologized. Then again, I am lucky; I live in an area where the police force is generally very trustworthy.

  51. This weekend I went to a conference where they had “No Touch!” ribbons for those who wanted to ward off hugs. (Also ones for pronouns and other useful facts about a person.) I’m thinking maybe she needs a sign? :p

    1. I know you’re being light-hearted, but I really wish the default was “don’t touch” and there was a badge for “hugs welcome.” After all, you can’t unhug someone who doesn’t like to be touched and they’re stuck with a squicky feeling while a hugger getting a hug gets an added fuzzy feeling.

        1. …Then you either put your badge on or take it off, to match up with your mood?

          I mean, you aren’t being asked to sign up to a permanent lifestyle in this purely theoretical situation. You’d have that “problem” either way, no matter which the conference set as default, so I don’t see why making the safer option the default one causes any problems. Either everyone gets given a badge to wear or not as they choose, or the people who want to go against the stated default (of hugging/no hugging) have to go get a badge from conference staff. Either way, everyone knows where to find one.

          1. I don’t know the details of how this conference was run or what other rules or culture there was, so quite possibly it was all handled very well.

            What was making me uncomfortable was the possible interpretation that if you label yourself as a hugger (whether by the presence or absence of a badge) it makes it fair game for people to come up and hug you without asking or inviting in the usual ways, or harder for you to decline a hug without an excuse. Hugs often (usually?) depend on how well you know the person and how comfortable you are with them, not just the day you’re having.

            If it just divides people into ‘I’m open to invitations to hug but of course might still decline’ and ‘please don’t even ask’ then that’s much more reasonable

          2. Hi TO_Ont, if the spam filter eats your comments temporarily (which it does, a lot), there’s no need to repost! It’ll eat the reposts, too. I’ll fish it out as soon as I can. Sorry about that and thank you.

          3. Out of nesting:
            OK, I couldn’t tell that the spam filter got it since it looks the same as when my connection is just bad.

            Sorry for the million reposts!

        2. An increasing number of events these days have three colors of badge that you can switch between at need to convey your desire for social interaction in general: one for “do not interact with me unless I approach you first,” one for “you may approach me if and only if we already know each other,” and one for “everyone may talk to me.” Having a similar three levels might work for signalling huggability, with one for “no hugs,” one for “ask first,” and one for “hug away.”

          1. I would not go to a con where my interest in hugging needed to be conveyed by a complicated badge system. ASK FIRST. ALWAYS. Just do it. The default is “ask first.” If the answer is yes, everyone gets hugs! If the answer is no, no harm done!

          2. Right — that should be the default most places, and a convention with a badge system could easily also have that be the explicitly spelled-out default there so that not everyone has to bother to wear one. But some people might want a way to signal “actually, don’t *even* ask, I don’t want to have to field the request.”

          3. AllanV, why would there be a need for such a badge, unless there are people being pushy about hugs?

            And if there are, the solution is to stop them being pushy, not have people wear defensive armor against attack.

          4. *shrug* I was imagining that some folks might want them simply due to social anxiety making it easier to say no preemptively. Maybe you’re right that that wouldn’t be the case often enough to make it worthwhile, though.

          5. AllanV, it’s a nice thought, but you’re missing the point; if such a badge is needed, there is something gone wrong with how people are behaving at that event. If hugginess were not routinely used as a tool of dominance and power by men against women, your point would be less loaded, but we’re stuck with reality, where you have once again proposed that women need to somehow control how handsy men choose to get. They don’t. People wanting to touch can back right the fuck up and get enthusiastic consent first. #TimesUp

            The privilege blinders you’re wearing on this one are not okay. Wearing such a badge will do NOTHING to protect a woman against handsy assholes — they’ll claim that they’re trying to “help” her get over her “issues” and rationalize that sure, she’s wearing the badge, but she didn’t flee the entire event, so she must be fine with handsy assholes being handsy assholes.

            Just cut it out. Go talk to the handsy assholes if you want to see better behavior and decorum.

    2. That’s horrible. People shouldn’t have to wear labels just to have their own bodily autonomy respected.

      This sounds like that horrible creeper who decided that he should get to run around a software convention asking all the women if he could touch their boobs, with lots of propaganda about how this was a wonderful and life-affirming experience for everyone. If you really didn’t want Creepy and his creepy friends jumping out of the crowd at you and abruptly asking to touch your breasts, well, okay, Creepy And Friends were willing to allow you to wear a special button to try to hang onto your ownership of your own breasts. But he was very clear that the entire point, from his perspective, was that women would not and should not own their own breasts — they should be communal property. And by communal, he meant him.

      People tried suggesting that Creepy And Friends go sit in a side room somewhere with clear signage and if anyone really did want the Creepsters to feel them up, they could find them there. Creepy adamantly refused that option as too passive, insisting that the wonderful magic only happens when he had utter license to run around the convention harassing and coercing as many women as possible.

      1. OMG, I remember reading about that. The Open Source Boob Project. I remember thinking at the time that the fantasy of total access to everyone’s breasts is developmentally appropriate if you’re about 8 months old …

      2. That is beyond horrible. I hope Creepy McFuckface was BANNED forever from that software convention. *shudder*

        1. I doubt it. He wrote a long not-pology in which he kept trying to get everyone to understand that this was such a good experience for him, and that’s what matters. He included saying he would not attend the two conferences he did this at when they ran the following year and tried to make it sound noble, but it was clearly about knowing how despised he was by large numbers of people.

          I’ve noticed that in both his not-confession-not-apology and in some of the recent dudely “I done wrong” confessions in consent discussions, any kind of real empathy for the victims just isn’t there. They tend to express dismay that they don’t feel so good about themselves, but that’s about it.

          1. I saw one recently where the dude actually resigned from the position of power he had…depressing because it’s the exception that proves the rule.

      3. I remember that. In fact, I just found his apology-ish thing. He did at least seem to grasp that even if it worked really well there and nobody was at all offended or uncomfortable (which is highly unlikely) it wasn’t a repeatable idea. But. You can say it’s “opt in” till the cows come home (and ignore that the buttons didn’t show up until after there was a lot of random stranger approaching), but the presence of the buttons is already asking the question. That’s going to make a whole bunch of people feel unsafe. Not to mention how unhappy other people are likely to be when they’re already fending off creeps at the con, and someone’s decided to run this. Or how other guests at the hotel feel.

        Even setting aside all the other concerns, this started at ConFusion, which is a big SF con in Michigan. Then they showed up at Penguicon with the buttons. They were not doing this in private in someone’s room or an empty conference room, this was going on in the hallways. CF has a big children’s track. Not to be all, “think of the children!” but most people wandering around were probably not expecting to stumble across a group grope by the elevator while taking their kids to lunch. If hotel security sees this, the con could be 86ed.


        1. Yeah, fundamentally he’s just another sleazoid who found what he thought was an end-run around consent and basic adult civility. He made it really clear that if it was restricted to people offering him what they chose, that would not do it — he wanted to be Lord Boob Harasser Asshole all over unsuspecting and non-consenting crowds, and he wasn’t going to settle for less.

          And I said, not one lick of normal human empathy. Just BEWBS HURHURHUR.

        2. He seemed to be truly arguing, “But this one time my friend let me feel her boobs and everyone had fun! Wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone could relax enough to just let that be a thing?” And I was like. Dude. No. People with breasts are already quite fully aware that other people wanna touch ’em. The reason most of us don’t let you just honk them is because we DON’T WANT YOU TO. Some of us have been fighting off the grabbies since we were twelve years old.

          1. Yeah, he knows, sadly. He knew it at the time. That’s why he got so upset when people pushed on him hard when this was unfolding to go sit quietly on a chair with a sign around his neck saying he was offering to be a toucher if anyone wanted their boobs touched. That would work perfectly well if his claims that women wanted this from him were actually true. He threw manbaby tantrums over it because he knew it wasn’t true.

          2. Oh, but it’s a compliment when a rando wants grope you. Can’t you take a compliment?! Next thing you know, wimminz will claim it’s not a compliment when they get catcalled on the street!!!!

        3. That is completely and utterly horrible and makes me feel violent feelings towards him and his sleazoid friends. I would truly love to know whether this kind of behaviour will be accepted in future.

          I do not want to be all “what about the children” either but I run role playing games to several youngsters and they do look a lot like adults. If a despicable excuse of a human being like him came to ask them to touch their boobs they might truly panic worse than me. It is unfortunate to say so, but being an adult with some life exprience has given us more practice on how to handle situations like that.

          1. Good God, yes, I didn’t even think of this aspect of it. Some teens look quite adult, sometimes even kids in their early teens.

          2. TO_Ont (out of nesting), THAT!

            Speaking as someone who WAS one of those teens who looked (and “seemed”) years older than I actually was. The “But [DesertRose}, you don’t seem that young!” was probably partially physical size (I’m tall, was tall for my age basically my entire childhood/adolescence, and sturdily built, and puberty started for me on the young end of average) and partially advanced vocabulary and partially gods-know-what-else.

            And @Convallaria majalis, bless you for thinking of the younger gamers and for being willing to advocate for them when creepers pull their creeper bullshit!

      4. Oh my gaaawd I remember that. There’s a particular line that sticks in my head still – something about women coming up to him and asking if their boobs were good enough to be touched. And he said yes, and lo, he HEALED WOMEN’S SELF ESTEEM with his magical groping. What a fucking hero.

        1. Yeah, there was a lot of that in how he wrote about it — women were so beautifully healed, you see, by being allowed to apply to sleazoid for approval of their breasts, and even more healed by the magic power of him “grabbing handfuls” as he called it. He is Lord of the Bewbs, you see, and has sole power of bewb healing, so it’s for the sake of all women that his predatory creepy ass must be allowed to run around harassing and creeping on everyone.

          If you read enough of his arguments in defense of this garbage, you can see the core of anger and hate that fed his power trip of wanting women to apply to him for validation groping. Because those bitches should have been begging him all along, you see, and now he has the power, SO THERE. BITCHES.

  52. I really hope one day she is cured of this the same way a friend of mine was. Saw a hair on a woman’s collar, thoughtlessly just plucked it off quick. Turns out said hair was not a cat hair on sweater but a hair that was connected to a mole on said woman. Said mole then began bleeding like a stab wound. woman feels sharp tug and then pain, feels her neck and comes back with a hand covered in blood, friend left standing there sheepishly holding a hair and hoping it is possible to silently will yourself out of existence entirely while woman hair was attached to screams, threatens battery charges, and attempts to stop the bleeding.

    If I recall she was barely talked out of calling the police, and my friend realized that her “innocent” boundary-violating habit could end in a courtroom or apocalyptic levels of embarrassment that even if she lives to be 100 she will remember as she’s trying to go to sleep and cringe herself sideways right out of bed.

    1. Mmmm…I’d settle for LW’s colleague being cured of her habit by realizing that what happened to your friend could happen to her. That way no one has to literally bleed for her.

  53. Ha – I read this and just thought – “a flurry of slaps will sort that shit out!” – like the quick double hand slaps kids play with
    Every time she goes to touch you slap her hand away!
    You don’t have to verbally confront her then – I know that can be really daunting, but it is a pretty clear indication that you don’t want her to touch you.
    “Stop touching me – I don’t like/want you to do that” is something that can be really tough to say in the moment, but it is really valuable to push yourself to do.
    I come from a country that is not crazy litigious so suing each other to death isn’t really a fear I’ve taken into account with the slapping but be strong and stand up for yourself
    Good luck!

  54. I agree that it is time to draw a very firm boundary here. I had a colleague who was “a hugger” and she wanted us all to be instantaneous besties. Like LW’s cohort-mate, this is not acceptable professional behavior at all, and it really isn’t a kindness to her to let it continue. If I get push-back or Reasons for stuff like this, I use my most understanding Kindergarten Teacher voice to stand firm, validate their feelings, name the behavior for what it is (an attempt to use your person as a pacifier), reiterate the boundary, name the consequence for future violations, and put the blame and the responsibility back where it belongs.

    “But it bothers me!” would be met with something like, “And I’m sure that’s uncomfortable for you. I sympathize. But it’s still NOT OK for you to touch me as a way to manage your anxious feelings, at the expense of my bodily autonomy and integrity, just to make yourself feel better. I know you probably don’t mean any harm. But being bothered is a YOU problem, not a ME problem. The solution does not involve crossing the boundary [that I am clearly gesturing to right now] over into MY space. Adults of our species do not engage in social grooming. You can figure out how to manage that uncomfortable feeling Without. Touching. Me. I shouldn’t have to be saying this again. I don’t want to have to make a Big Thing out of this, but if it continues you will force me to [file a complaint, speak to mgmt. etc.] because you cannot go around putting your hands all over folks without their permission. OK? Thank you.”

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