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Dear Captain,

I have an acquaintance who is getting on my nerves. I say acquaintance – he thinks we’re really good friends. I feel more like I’m spending time with him out of social responsibility, because he is incredibly lonely and incredibly unhappy (I’m one of a couple of people acting as cheerleaders to help him get some help for various problems he has, including some mental health issues). We have very little in common that brings us together outside of my concern for his wellbeing.

I can handle that – but what’s starting to bug me is that he’s incredibly touchy. INCREDIBLY. It’s nothing creepy, but definitely needy and clingy in a way I don’t like. I’m okay with sitting next to him and holding his hand while we talk, since touch is clearly important to him. I can deal with him crying on my shoulder, but often while he is doing that, he will hug me very tight, touch the back of my neck (clearly accidentally but still something I don’t like), and he’s started to tug on my arm insistently until I’ll put it around him too. Which I do, because, well, the guy’s crying – as well as awkward it feels mean to say ‘no, the touching stops here’ or ‘how about you stop crying so I can say I don’t like people touching my neck’. The touched-out feeling is also corresponding with a feeling of empathy-burnout, which doesn’t help – I don’t feel like being particularly comforting, I feel more like I want to crawl out of my skin.

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

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

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

Touchy Teammate

Dear Touchy,

A quick easy question, thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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