I do not technically have my own office at work. While I have three whole walls to call my own, my area is connected to the rest of the suite via that missing fourth wall and the lack of a door. And while it is technically “my” space, it is frequently visited by those who need to pick up their printing from one of the printers, visit the filing cabinet, or ask for my help with something. This is all perfectly acceptable.
But there is one space, one tiny section of this whole area that I view as mine and mine alone: behind my desk. This 12 square-foot space is my domain, and aside from the custodian emptying my trash can, it annoys the hell out of me if anyone comes into it unbidden.
Am I the only one like this? Is it strange for me to get pissed off when I come in and find paperwork set in my chair rather than my prominently displayed inbox? When I find a note sitting on top of my keyboard, which could only have been left there either by a giant with really long arms or by a regular-sized perpetrator coming behind my desk? When I am speaking to someone from across that polished wooden barrier and they suddenly barge around the side? Am I being oddly territorial?
I don’t think so. But I probably have better spatial awareness (i.e., worse personal-space issues) than a lot of people at my job. I might go into my boss’s office when he’s not there to set paperwork in his inbox or to water his plant, but I would never go behind his desk unless he asked me to do so. If someone has an inbox on their desk, I would think it safe to assume that that’s where they want you to leave things for them. Call me crazy, but I think of it as common courtesy to respect the space that is assigned to others as if they owned it.
But even the note strategically placed where people think I am most likely to see it (because it’s not like I leave one side of my desk intentionally blank for such things) or the paperwork “concealed” from outsiders but left where I either have to pick it up and deal with it or sit on it, those are the minor annoyances.
It’s that last offense, committed only by those too oblivious to understand the gravity of their actions, that really gets me. If I have not explicitly invited you to step around into my domain, you need to stay on the outside-side of the desk! Alas, not everyone understands this.
One of those not-understanders is the woman I call the Office Hugger.
Now, given my disinclination for excessive physical affection, my wariness of dealing with this particular individual is entirely understandable. I don’t hug my coworkers. I just don’t. There are the rarest of the rare exceptions—if we’ve actually become friends, if it’s someones last day. That’s pretty much it. The rest of you get a handshake at best. But as I’ve mentioned before, the welcoming and friendly culture at my workplace is, in my opinion, sometimes carried a little too far. I do my best not to be standoffish, but you’ve got to draw the line at some point. For me, that line involves unwanted physical contact and invading my space.
The instance for which I have dubbed this woman the Office Hugger, she did both.
It was a few months ago, but I’m apparently still holding a grudge about it. I was wasting time on the internet, minding my own business, when she comes by and starts thanking me for everything that I do. I sometimes feel a little underappreciated at work, so at first I was touched by her expression of gratitude. But then I noticed her edging her way around the side of my desk, that barrier of artfully wood-grain imprinted plywood that gives me an instant 3-foot personal bubble. She was entering my bubble. The look of confusion muddled with mild horror on my face did not deter her, and before I could so much as comprehend what she was doing, the woman bent down and wrapped her arms around my shoulders.
I did not even engage in the hug; I instantly went rigid in shock. The last time I had touched this lady was shaking her hand the day she started working here. This was completely unprecedented. As far as I could tell, the Hugger remained entirely oblivious to my discomfort. She simply finished her thanks and went back to her office, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
Now I’m aware that my personal space/physical affection issues are just that: personal. They are my issues, and they are not shared by every human being. But I often mistakenly assume that there are safe places where I am guaranteed these issues will not come up. Work is one of those places. Given the very long courses on sexual harassment we are all periodically required to attend, this instance would never, NEVER have occurred if one of us had been male. And if by some chance it had occurred anyway, I would have immediately informed said male—as politely as possible—that I was not comfortable with his actions, to which I’m sure he would have apologized profusely. But the Hugger is a woman. She is a generally very nice and friendly woman, so I knew her actions were meant with only the most innocent and best of intentions. And being the non-toucher in a touchy-feely family, I’m used to making occasional concessions when it comes to such things.
So I tried to let it go; it’s my issue, not hers. She didn’t even know about it. If it looked like it was going to happen again, I’d simply inform the Hugger that I’m not comfortable with physical expressions of affection in the workplace, and that would be that.
But I have now realized that this singular occurrence has tainted all my subsequent interaction with this woman. I find myself not wanting to go anywhere near her and eyeing her with suspicion whenever she approaches. Instead of feeling underappreciated, I now find myself getting annoyed with anyone who thanks me for just doing my job. And I’m starting to think it’s less and less about the hugging and more about the fact that on top of the hugging, she came behind my desk uninvited. If we were in the hallway and that had happened, it might not have made such an impact. But this was a double whammy. Like I said, one unknowing violation of my personal space I can forgive; the next time, I will inform you of how I in my warped perspective perceive your behavior and ask you not to do it again. But the Hugger committed her first and second personal space invasion in the same five-second window. I barely had time to process that it was happening at all, much less express my discomfort and thus prevent her from further offense.
And now, a couple of months after the fact, it’s really too late for me to say anything. So I’m trying to let it go. I’m trying really, really hard. But I guarantee you, if she so much as steps a toe around the corner of my desk again, she will know what she has done.