Maybe you’re a hugger, or a back-slapper, or — in your personal life — a terrible flirt. Chances are, you know that none of this behavior will fly in the office, no matter how innocent your intentions. No one wants to be referred to HR for remedial training or, worse, lose their jobs because they didn’t get the memo that it’s 2015, and co-workers don’t touch each other. In this, we are probably more with the program than many of our leaders in Washington. Take, for example, America’s touchy-feeler-in-chief, Joe Biden.
(Photo Credit: Playbuzz)
Recently, news outlets including The Washington Post and NPR took the vice president to task for getting a little too close to Stephanie Carter, the wife of new defense secretary Ash Carter, during her husband’s swearing-in ceremony.
How close? Here’s the extremely awkward photo evidence:
That is not the body language of a comfortable person. Which brings us to our first lesson:
1. The most important reason not to touch people at work is that it might make them uncomfortable.
That’s it, really. All the other consequences — legal trouble, job loss, social censure — proceed from there. Invading people’s personal space isn’t good manners, and without manners, human beings are basically a bunch of relatively hairless primates who learned how to tie ties and put on pantyhose. Be polite, or society collapses.
2. The best-case interpretation will not work in your favor.
“Biden is a creature of his time; that’s not so much an excuse as it is context,” writes Nia-Malika Henderson at The Washington Post. “He is folksy and always (overly) familiar, the kind of guy who name-checks somebody named ‘Mouse’ at an NAACP convention.”
In other words, the absolute best spin? Old guy is old.
Not exactly the press a potential presidential candidate is hoping for.
3. Even if the touchee doesn’t actually object, they might not like it.
You are probably not some sort of doctor of body language, a la supermarket tabloids. (And neither are those people, but we digress.) The real deal is, you can’t always tell how people feel by their reaction. People laugh when they’re stressed, cry when they’re happy, freeze when the vice president appears to be about to grope them in front of a Christmas tree:
Especially when there’s a power differential at play, it’s not always easy to tell how people really feel about being handled. Better to stick to brief handshakes.
4. And even if they’re fine with it, the folks around them might not be.
Look at the lady in this picture, and then look at the guys she’s with:
Does it look like they’re going to vote Democrat? Being inappropriate in the workplace makes everyone uncomfortable, not just the victim. And while you might not need your co-workers to cast their vote for you at an actual ballot box, make no mistake: you are dependent on their goodwill, in order to accomplish your goals. You won’t earn their support by creeping everyone out.
5. Most people who enjoy the behavior are also super inappropriate.
It seems mean to pick on great fictional American Leslie Knope, just as Parks and Recreation is about to leave us forever. However, consider how she closed out her brief meeting with the veep:
LESLIE: See you tomorrow!
BIDEN: Uh, you will?
If you’re a casual workplace toucher, you might get a lot of enthusiasm from some folks, only to find your own boundaries somewhat compromised. Think about that, before you accidentally throw in your lot with folks whose idea of “friendly” exceeds your own.
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