Monday, July 29, 2013

To Touch or Not To Touch - That is the Question

How we greet one another appears to have evolved into a variety and at times bizarre ways of expressing our enthusiasm for seeing a familiar face. A reader wrote to ask about the etiquette of what is or may not be appropriate when we meet others.

Dear Jay:

My question is about appropriate touches between two male friends. I'm not sure if this is the right category for my questions, but I hope you can still help me.

1. I have a close friend who loves women and is a married man. We normally greet each other by fist bump or handshake. Since we are close, sometimes he would greet me by touching me and tickle my chest in a joking way. I think that it is inappropriate for him to touch my chest, but I still think that he is straight.

2. There is another guy at work who would say goodbye sometimes by gently punching a part of your body if there is no opportunity for a handshake or fist bump. Sometimes he would gently punch you in the arm or forearm or your back. Is it all right that he punched me near my right ankle while we were seated? Do you see anything wrong about punching or tapping the thigh part of another man?

3. I had a previous male coworker who would sometimes pinch me in my abdomen. 

I would love to hear your personal opinion, Jay.

Dear Michael,
I have noticed over the past couple of decades that more and more men greet one another more comfortably using fist pumps, hugs, and other friendly touches unheard of a generation or two ago. The formal handshake has been delegated to the boardroom or a formal social gathering. In the old days, a good firm handshake was the true mark of a gentleman; and it was customarily the first physical contact one person had with another. I believe it was the world of sports that introduced us to the fist pump. It was a quick and easy and ever-so-masculine way to acknowledge a good shot or achievement. This was quickly adopted into the business world as a code of coolness. As cool as it may be on the sports field, it doesn’t transfer into the world of business well at all.
Touching other body parts is not a sign of not being straight – it’s simply another manifestation of trying to be cool. Punching people with no intent to harm or hurt is rather Neanderthal and is best reserved for frat houses or sports bars. It has no place in polite society. Why one would touch an ankle is simply bizarre. Touching one’s thigh can be misinterpreted as being a step over the line and is to be avoided.
Pinching another person’s abdomen is also a bit odd and is an unfortunate nervous action most likely.
The other night I was at a smart dinner party. There was a man there who very much wanted to give me a hug, but was concerned about how this action might tarnish his image. He clearly demonstrated throughout the evening, as he became more and more intoxicated, that his image had more to worry about than giving me a hug. I personally do not like to be grabbed by anyone without having progressed through several greeting stages previously, perhaps over a period of time.  This action is one of dominance and puts people off, particularly when alcohol is involved. 

There are some people whom I kiss on the cheek – even some men. This is a custom prevalent in many parts of the world. There are others whom I bow to, and others whom I hug. Most men receive a handshake, as that is what they are most comfortable with.
Assuming one is even aware of his or her actions, one never wants to cross personal boundaries and risk making another person uncomfortable or in the case of a drunken bear hug, in danger. Always err on the side of caution.
There is little one can do about drunks other than to remove oneself from the situation. For chums who have a distorted sense of what is proprietary, a simple “Please don’t do that” should suffice. Most people don’t like being punched in the arm or pinched in the stomach or anywhere else. These forms of physical communication should be left on the sports field.

For me a handshake says a lot about a person. It can indicate confidence, friendliness, dominance, weakness, and many, many other characteristics. In my workshops I spend a lot of time demonstrating, discussing, and reinforcing this very important form of greeting. Therefore,I stick to that unless I have established a closer relationship where a mutual understanding has been established. This has nothing to do with being straight. It has to do with being civil.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Paying It Forward

Even the brain of a young 62 year old can be addled by the heat wave we experienced last week. I was in the grocery store buying a few last minute provisions for a dinner party I was hosting that evening. In the check out line I was cheerily chatting away with a woman ahead of me. She was still loading her purchases into plastic bags as my items were scanned. I suddenly discovered I had forgotten my wallet! I was stunned and horrified and quickly asked the clerk if she would hold everything but the ice cream, which I would return to the freezer, and then go back, fetch my wallet, and return to pay for my groceries. Before the clerk could respond, the nice lady with whom I was chatting said, “Allow me to pay for your groceries.” Naturally I replied, “Oh no, I couldn’t allow that. I’ll just come back in a few minutes.” She insisted suggesting, “You can pass the gesture on one day to someone else.” I graciously accepted her kind offer and thanked her sincerely.

The kindness of strangers is powerful. For her $20 outlay I felt such gratitude, it was as though she had solved a really big problem. No one had ever done this for me before – thankfully I do make a point of carrying money with me to the grocery store. There have been plenty of times when I have helped people in line who needed an extra fiver, but I had never been in such a spot myself. Believe me when I say the feeling is quite different when the shoe is on the other foot.

I am reminded of a time when a friend and I were shopping for groceries one Christmas Eve. We were buying what we needed to make lobster chowder for the people with whom we were spending Christmas. My friend noticed a somewhat disheveled young woman with two small children picking through the bargain bins with a very forlorn expression. He went over to her and asked her if she needed any assistance. She was so happy to hear his voice and his offer. She went on to explain that she was struggling to put a nice meal on the table for her and her children. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “It’s Christmas. I want you and your children to have a wonderful meal. I want to give you the groceries as a gift.” Naturally she was dumbfounded and with very little resistance accepted his offer. They went around the store and filled a cart full of turkey and all the fixings for a lovely Christmas dinner. He cheerfully paid for the groceries and carried them to her car, tears streaming down her face.

She said she wanted his address so she could thank him properly. He handed her a business card, gave her a hug and wished her a Merry Christmas. Two weeks later, after we returned from our holiday, a note arrived in the mail from this woman. She was so grateful and her story was so warm and tender. She cooked a beautiful meal for her and her children and because of his gesture could even afford a gift for each of them. The power of that thank you note was so incredible that we both just started to tear up. We have never received a more sincere note or a more cherished gift from anyone.

Giving of oneself is appreciated at all times by everyone – it is a universal human dynamic. Imagine if we all experienced giving and receiving throughout the year –perhaps even more so than we already do? Wouldn’t our world be a different place! I know I will never forget these special times when both giving and receiving made such an impression. It’s just a thought, but why not make a conscious effort to offer a random act of kindness everyday? The benefits are immeasurable, the joy everlasting!