Why are people at work always touching me?

I get bear hugs from men and unsolicited kisses on the cheek from women. Co-workers of both sexes grip my elbows, tap my knees and pat my back. An editor recently held my hand on deadline—literally. One work friend hugs me every time she sees me in the elevator, even if I’m furiously typing on my BlackBerry and juggling iced coffee and a salad.

Brian Ajhar


  • Do you touch at work? Do you get touched? Send your best anecdotes to bonds@wsj.com. We’ll publish our favorites online next week.

I thought my colleagues were just being really friendly, until I turned a corner in the hallway one day and the cleaning woman flung her arms around me and stroked my hair. She told me she just wanted to say “Hi.”

That’s when I knew it was me. I am, for lack of a better word, a “touchee.” Figuring out when it’s foul and when it’s surprisingly welcome can be tricky.

Every workplace seems to have at least one “toucher”—someone constantly doling out hugs, shoulder rubs or high fives. Some people hate this attention and quickly put an end to it. For better or worse, that leaves a lot more love for the rest of us.

But is it ever really OK to put your hand on someone else in the office, even in friendship and support?

It depends whom you ask. Corporate lawyers and human-resource types say we should always keep our hands to ourselves in the workplace. After all, touch is subjective. One person’s friendly pat can quickly turn into another’s threatened lawsuit.

“There aren’t standards about what touching is nonsexual other than handshakes,” says Larry Stybel, a Boston management consultant. “If we are sitting alongside each other and I put my hand on your knee, is that a friendly sign of affection or a sexual come-on? I don’t know, and I don’t know how you will perceive it. So let’s not even go there.”

Lots of folks subscribe to the hands-off rule. “Respect my force field,” says Greg Farrall, a 39-year-old financial adviser in Valparaiso, Ind. “If you’re looking over me at my computer screen, you don’t need to put your hand on my shoulder. You can easily put it somewhere else.”

Mr. Farrall says he has repeatedly asked his co-workers to keep their hands off him. Undeterred, they continue to pat, poke and jab him, often, he suspects, just to get a reaction. Making matters worse, some of his clients—relieved that he has helped them stem their losses—have started hugging him. With every touch, he flinches.

“It must be a big, teddy-bearish thing,” he says, explaining that he is 6’2” tall and weighs 220 pounds. “Maybe people feel protected.”

Or maybe they just can’t help themselves. Touch is an essential form of human communication, the first one we understand as newborns. It’s unnatural to suppress it. Even online, we’ve found a way to evoke it: Witness the Facebook “poke” and Twitter’s “nudge.”

And we miss it when it’s gone. “I work with myself and can only touch myself ... which has its pluses and minuses,” says Todd Adler, an equities trader in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Touch is also the best way to express empathy, sympathy and other kinds of support, say psychologists. This is why we are quick to embrace someone who has recently lost a loved one. And why there’s so much hugging, patting and stroking going on in workplaces these days, as colleagues console one another after layoffs and buyouts.

“Everyone is huggy now, and it’s not creepy,” says Kathy Casey, 48, a chef in Seattle. She admits she constantly touches her staff—patting arms, squeezing shoulders, giving hugs. Sometimes it’s to reassure an employee she’s had to reprimand, but often it’s to comfort someone having a bad day or to congratulate someone for a job well done. “It’s a sign of compassion and caring,” she says.

Perhaps this is why my co-workers keep touching me. Intrigued, I decided to ask them. “You’re so friendly,” said one. “You’re always stressed,” said another. “You’re self-deprecating, and I want to give you a boost,” said a third.

“You’re short,” a close friend said. So much for compassion.

But how do “touchers” know whom to touch? How do they find the people who won’t belt them the second they put out their hand?

Experts say there’s no playbook. You’re always taking a risk by making physical contact with a co-worker. In general, a person’s upbringing will influence their comfort level. And different workplaces have different cultures. You may want to keep your hands to yourself if you work in a stuffy law firm. But back slaps might not raise an eyebrow in a talent agency.

Still, there are some people you should probably keep your hands off of, including cute interns, pregnant women and your boss. (Trust me on this last one. Purely for research, I tried to put my hand on my boss’s arm. He swatted at it—three times—and growled something about moving my desk to the mailroom.)

Maybe experienced “touchers” are more intuitive. “It’s almost like I use a sixth sense” to know whom to touch, says Marni Greene, a self-proclaimed “touching-is-healing kind of person.”

Ms. Greene routinely scratches the heads and backs—and massages the shoulders—of male and female co-workers she is friendly with at the medical-supply-company customer-service center where she works in Moorestown, N.J. “It shows that we’re not alone,” she says. “And it’s like a five-second vacation.”

Still, aren’t we all a little hypocritical? Sure, we may hate it when the loudmouth in the next cubicle wants to fist-bump after every meeting. But we still get a thrill when the big boss praises us with a slap on the back.

As long as he doesn’t have hygiene issues, like Kathy Kniss’s former employer. “You could hear him masticating from two doors down,” says Ms. Kniss, 31, a marketing representative in Pasadena, Calif. “If you did something he approved of, he would approach your desk and give you a high five. It was the same with holidays. God forbid you were the last person out of the office, because then he’d want to give you a hug.”

The reaction among her co-workers, Ms. Kniss says, was “reserved.” People would wince, bob and weave, pretend they’d forgotten something on their desks and flee. “We all used the excuse: I don’t want to touch you, I have a cold,” she says.

But Ms. Kniss, who recently started working from home, says she now misses the physical affirmations that get doled out in an office after a deal. “I can’t get that now,” she says. “My dog has no idea what’s going on.”

As for me, I’m happy I work in an office, because I need all the support I can get. So if you want to give me a hug, I’m at desk number 04.BH41.


The ties that bind people together are sometimes taut, sometimes fraught and often mysterious. In Bonds, a column that will appear in Personal Journal every other week, Elizabeth Bernstein will examine the often-unexplained ways people live with, work with and love each other.

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at bonds@wsj.com

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About Elizabeth Bernstein

In nearly a decade at The Wall Street Journal, Bonds columnist Elizabeth Bernstein has covered education, philanthropy, psychology and religion - all areas in which personal relationships loom large. In her work, she has ranged far and wide, from exposing the backlash against excessive emailing of baby photos to a detailed narrative reconstruction of a matricide. She has received awards from organizations including the New York Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' Deadline Club, the Education Writers Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association. Now, Elizabeth is using her acquired insights and expertise to explore the manifold aspects of human interactions, whether at home, at work or among friends.