A lot of good men have come to me recently with questions about respecting boundaries — particularly those of their female colleagues. It’s not that they haven’t been thinking about this all along. But in the current environment of increased openness and feistiness about sexual harassment, many men are trying to be especially respectful in their interactions with women.
I’ve covered the subject from the perspective of women and bystanders, counseling them to respond fiercely to sexual harassment in the workplace. For those worried about transgressing (or being perceived as transgressing), a recent article in the Wall Street Journal may offer some help. The author, Michael Graziano, is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton who studies personal space across species, cultures, and genders.
One of Graziano’s most consistent findings is that personal space extends with anxiety. The more stressed you are, the more your personal space — the distance you need to feel comfortable around other people — grows. And some studies have shown that women need an especially large personal space when approached by men.
It makes me think of that classic posture where a woman has her back against a wall and a man is leaning over her with his hand against the wall. One of the takeaways from Graziano’s research is — don’t do that!
Another example: when I am in a hurry, I barge through a crowd fairly aggressively. My husband, a tall and gentle man, will move through much more slowly because he is aware that he can seem threatening.
So, here’s the word. If you are male, and especially if you are a large guy, don’t close in on women. You needn’t avoid women altogether, just don’t stand any closer than you would with another guy, and maybe even step back a little further. Respecting others’ personal space is a good non-verbal way to indicate that you respect women’s boundaries, both to the woman you’re talking to, and to the rest of your colleagues in the workplace.