I am grateful that Alyssa Milano, champion of the #MeToo, movement recently defended Joe Biden for his “overly affectionate” demeanor. Not because I think that Joe Biden’s invasions of people’s personal space isn’t a problem, but because Mr. Biden has been forthright about his willingness to learn. Milano attributed Biden’s overly familiar interactions to “cultural differences” that stemmed from his upbringing. She stated that he was raised in an affectionate household, so from his perspective this was normal behavior. Yet we also have to consider generational differences. Mr. Biden was born in 1942. He was a young professional in the early seventies, a time was smoking cigarettes at your desk and pouring some whiskey for a colleague at 3pm was acceptable. I am not saying older men should be given a pass when they do something inappropriate like whisper in a young girl’s ear making her clearly uncomfortable, like Biden did at a colleague’s swearing-in ceremony in 2015. What I am saying is that we have to give people the chance to admit when they are wrong and to learn from their mistakes.
Most women have been there before- an overly affectionate, usually older male, lets a hug linger a little too long, or puts his hand on your back making you feel uncomfortable. In the wake of the #MeToo movement many of us are left wondering, what are we supposed to do with people who grew up in a world where the rules were different? How soon are they expected to change and whose responsibility is it to help them learn? We are all responsible. We all owe it to one another to speak out when we see something that is clearly making someone else uncomfortable. The key is how to speak out. Often times the best approach, especially when the offender in question is a clueless older guy, is to firmly and clearly address the behavior outright in a private setting.
Our personal comfort zones are personal comfort zones for a reason. What one person might find totally acceptable, could make another extremely uncomfortable. This leaves many of us, men and women alike, wondering how can we know when we might be invading someone’s personal space? The answer is quite simple really, ask. The simple gesture of saying, “is it okay to give you a hug?” can go a very long way in showing someone that you respect them enough to give you permission to touch them. Everyone has their own personal benchmark for what kind of touching they are okay with in a professional space, and what kind of interactions they would rather not encounter at work.
When dealing with a colleague whose sense of personal touch is a little “out of touch” there’s a simple three step plan you can follow. Take a light-hearted approach by making a joke out of the situation but still clearly stating that the touch is not welcome. That way the offender in question hopefully gets the picture without feeling humiliated. If it happens again, wait until you are in a private setting to address the situation one-on-one. Firmly and clearly state the behavior is making you feel uncomfortable. If it happens a third time, that’s the time to make an official complaint by getting HR involved. More often than not, the first or second intervention will effectively address the situation and everyone will benefit from the clear lines of communication. Joe Biden himself started the “It’s On Us” campaign back in 2014 to raise awareness around sexual violence and the ethos still applies. It is on us, on all of us, to be allies to survivors of sexual violence and to our sometimes clueless colleagues who need direction on appropriate workplace behavior in the 21st century.