While charges of harassment are virtually ubiquitous in headlines, invariably the people responsible claim to be shocked by allegations. Are they lying?
Very often the honest answer is "no."
Many of us are conditioned to overlook the subtle patterns of harassment present in common daily interactions. Those who do notice are framed as "fussy" or "difficult to work with." Often harassment begins with subtle behaviors, intrusions on personal space, and progressive grooming of targeted individuals. In other cases, bad behavior has been treated as "normal" by families or communities of origin.
It is vital that we consider that massive spectrum of variation in terms of human behavior, childhood social conditioning, and cultural norms within religious, ethnic, and geographic subsets. All of these variations converge within the workplace, creating a hot bed of opportunity for damaged morale, violations of respect, and loss of professionalism.
This discrepancy commonly plays out in perception of personal space. Let's start with an example of "soft" violation. Everyone has met a "close-talker"- and you may even be one. For the Close-Talker, a poor sense of proximity and spatial awareness has been instilled by habits in early social conditioning. Social intelligence may be loosely developed such that they are not adept at perceiving the discomfort of the people whose personal space they encroach upon. Nonetheless, people on the receiving end are uncomfortable and annoyed, and may find themselves feeling anxious or avoidant when said offender is around.
Close-talking is certainly not criminal, even though it is certainly intrusive. The idea is useful here in that we can see clearly that the offender is unaware and uneducated about his or her impact on others, and that the only productive intervention is for the receiver to assert their boundaries. It took awhile for me to feel ok about saying, "Hi. It's great to talk, but could you please step back a bit? It's a comfort and personal space thing. Thanks" But with practice, it has become easy, and has saved many working relationships from awkwardness.
From this fairly harmless space, we can extend the concept to people who have a bad habit of touching shoulders, insisting on hugs, or similar. If an individual was raised in a family or community where high physical contact is the norm, their expressions of affection may legitimately feel invasive, and like harassment to others from more reserved cultures of origin.
All staff and leadership should be encouraged not to make physical contact with other staff that wouldn't appear professional at a job interview or a conservative on-camera public event. These two scenarios provide excellent situational context for the lines between professionalism and a level of familiar contact that requires explicit consent.