Diplomatic Notes

Create healthy boundaries

When relating to people other than spouses or romantic partners how much touching is appropriate? Should we touch at all? Are their areas of the body we should not touch? The answer to these questions may vary from culture to culture. However, it seems to be clear across cultures that unsolicited touching by strangers or colleagues is not acceptable. Too many women and men have not been taught that there should be boundaries for touching. Hence, they allow any friend or new acquaintances to give them lingering hugs, or put their arms around their waists. They are not aware that they are actually becoming a public leaning post. They are becoming too familiar and open, making themselves vulnerable to being treated with disrespect and sexual harassment.

It is inappropriate for a supervisor to lean over his female secretary, and place his hands on her shoulder, while he reviews her work. It is equally inappropriate for supervisors to give lingering hugs or handshakes. Gone is the respect of a decent, short handshake. I encourage everyone to create a healthy distance between themselves and their peers. Create an “intimate space” around you in which only certain individuals, by your permission, can get in. That’s no kissing, lingering hugs, long handshakes, embraces, etc.

In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall, introduced the term proxemics to describe set measurable distances between people as they interact. He noted that there are four distances or spaces when we interact to people.

There is the “intimate distance” for embracing, touching or whispering. Close phase – less than six inches; Far phase – six to 18 inches.

There is the “personal distance” for interactions among good friends. Close phase – one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half feet; Far phase – two-and-a-half feet to four feet.

Third is the “social distance” for interactions among acquaintances. Close phase – four to seven feet; Far phase – seven to 12 feet.

The final distance is public distance used for public speaking. Close phase – 12 to 25 feet; Far phase – 25 feet or more.

Why would you allow someone in your “intimate space” when that person should not proceed beyond your “social space?”

Whom should you let touch your hips? The hips are very intimate parts of the body. Touching the hips give a clear message that you want something more. If a woman allows that to happen, she has given permission to someone to be in her “intimate space” who should perhaps not be allowed closer than her “personal space”, or “social space”. We get into trouble when are too free with touching. It could even be the way the pastor shakes the parishioners’ hands at the door, or what kinds of kiss he gives to the ladies in the church lobby.

We do not want to be cold and distant people. We do not want to have an “avoidance society” of people who are afraid to become “intimate, however, we can learn to respect each other’s intimate space and avoid getting “too close” physically, yet remaining wonderful friends.

I have wonderful friends who I respect and love dearly – but I will not invite them into my bathroom with me. My dear wife Annick is a native of France. French people are known as the most romantic people in the world. But it seems as though they respect “intimate space” better than most of us. They normally greet friends and relative with a kiss, four kisses to be exact. But these kisses are not on the lips, they are on the cheeks. Only intimate partners (spouses, lovers) kiss on the checks. However, I have noticed in our country and in the United States of America that even social friends, who should not be closer than two feet, kiss on their lips. This makes me feel uncomfortable when I see this. Let’s create healthy boundaries and keep our hands from performing inappropriate touching.

• Barrington Brennen is a marriage and family therapist. Send your questions or comments to question@soencouragment.org, telephone 327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org.

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