From the bestselling author of How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes explains the importance of resisting physical contact at work and lists alternative ways to show support to a colleague.
It’s often lonely on the job and, especially at times when it hurts, we welcome a friendly outreach. A pat on the back from your boss feels really good. An exuberant high five is fun. Women, when you’re down in the dumps, it’s comforting to get a hug from a female coworker you like. And guys, when it’s done in the right spirit, you welcome a work buddy giving you a friendly guy-type shoulder punch. These are all physical signs of support and friendship.
Touch is a powerful and poignant force in our lives, much more important than you probably ever thought. In fact, your need for touch began when you were enveloped in the close quarters of your mother’s womb for nine months. And it didn’t stop at birth. The moment you made your screaming, flailing entrance into the world, you continually needed human touch for healthy development. Something as simple as a loving touch by another person has proved to make the difference between life and death for children in an orphanage. It didn’t stop when you grew up—and the need for touch will continue when you grow old. Nursing homes report the phenomenal effect of human touch on residents’ health, happiness, and longevity. The potency of touch remains throughout life until your dying breath.
I care intensely about both verbal and non-verbal communication between human beings so, before I put my case to rest, let me share a bit more. Studies show that the brief compassionate touch of a doctor makes patients believe the physician stayed twice as long with them. And students receiving a supportive pat on the back or touch on the arm were far more apt to volunteer for projects. More studies have shown that dentists whose hands brushed their patients’ faces while working on their teeth got more referrals. In yet another study, nurses were required to warn women entering a brain scanner that they would receive a shock. When the nurses lightly touched them, the MRI demonstrated that the women’s fear circuits relaxed.
I have probably gone on too long here, but the point is paramount. Touch is powerful. Touch is crucial. Touch is a primal need. But sadly, in the workplace, touch is a definite no! It’s clear and simple: no touching at work. Recent transgressions have dramatically demonstrated the importance of a “hands-off” policy.
This often-unspoken rule started long before the #MeToo movement. Usually it’s the women who have been violated. However, men too have been flirted with, led on, and winked at by attractive female workers. It goes against a guy’s nature to not respond, but you must.
In the 1990s during the war on drugs, the most prevalent advertising slogan was “Just Say No.” These words were a powerful deterrent then. And now, especially since this long overdue war on sexual harassment, we must resist any form of physical contact at work, no matter how innocent. Women, we must now curb our natural instinct to put our arms around a dear friend at work to comfort her. Men, sadly, you must even swear off something as innocent as buddy-style back pats and arm punches. And especially when it comes to any kind of touch with the opposite sex, no matter how innocent, just say no to yourself.
Because touch is now forbidden, other forms of supportive communication are even more significant. Make it a point to touch with your eyes, touch with your smile, and touch with your warm words. Smile and a nod when you agree with someone in a meeting. And don’t be stingy with your compliments—as long as they don’t involve physical appearance.
Imagine everyone you work with is wearing a “Do Not Touch” label. Other than a friendly handshake on the job, save the warm friendship signals for friends who don’t work at your company. It’s unfortunate because it goes against our loving human instinct when we empathize and want to make a coworker feel good. So, retain your verbal expressions of support, but have no physical contact. It’s unfortunate but understandable that when the long-overdue #MeToo movement finally happened, many of those supportive and affectionate physical signals became forbidden territory
A personal note: Knowing how extremely crucial human touch is in communicating, it makes me very sad to write this. But, once again, the bottom line is hands off at work. Period.
To read more from Leil Lowndes, check out her recent book How to Talk to Anyone at Work.