A reader writes:
I am a woman working for a large university, performing a particular IT function for a local department. There is an organization-wide email discussion list for people performing this function, and an informal networking group that meets for coffee.I had previously heard gossip from women that there was a man in this networking group who smelled bad and would sit uncomfortably close to them, so that they stopped going. Recently I went for the first time and I think I met the guy! A poorly dressed man who smelled bad sat down so that his thigh touched mine. I inched away and he responded by inching closer. He basically chased me across the long bench we were sitting on throughout the whole meeting, until I ran out of room to get away from him. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t know most of the people there, and I wasn’t sure he was even aware he was doing it, so I wasn’t comfortable confronting him.
I was familiar with this man’s name from the email discussion list, and my impression of him was previously positive. The smelliness and poor appearance were unpleasant, but pretty common among male IT people here. I sense he is a well-intentioned nerd-type who lacks social awareness.
That said, his behavior is out of line and makes me hesitate to return to the group — and it seems he may have driven other women away before. I am considering sending him an email about the close-sitting behaviour (I will leave the grooming issues out of it), in which I describe the behaviour as neutrally as possible, state that it makes me uncomfortable, and advise him to take care to stay out of women’s personal space in general. What do you think of this as a strategy?
I don’t want to humiliate this man, nor do I want to start drama. He is better connected than me and I am mildly concerned about political consequences if he reacts defensively. But I do want to be able to network without unwanted physical contact from some smelly dude.
P.S. My supervisor is a really conflict-averse so I think I need to handle this myself or not at all.
Someone should at least address the personal-space-invasion issues — not only is he sitting too close, but he’s inching closer to you even after you’ve moved away? Something isn’t right there.
While I’m thrilled that you want to be direct with him about this (because so often that’s the only solution to this stuff, and people don’t want to do it), I’m not sure that doing it in a letter is the way to go. That makes it a bigger deal than it has to be, and it would probably be less of An Event if just do it in-person the next time it happens.
For instance: Go to the next event and if he sits next to you, say, “Excuse me, I need a little more space than that,” and move yourself away from him. If he follows, say, “I deliberately moved away, because I don’t want to sit so close that we’re touching. Can you please move back?”
(There are more passive methods too, of course — like not sitting down until he’s already taken a seat, so that you can sit somewhere that isn’t near him. That one has the additional advantage of giving you more space from the smell issue.)
In addition to that (or, if you prefer, in place of it), it’s also worth your talking to someone who’s in a position to do something about this more generally. If he’s really driving women away from these meetings, that’s a problem that someone in the management of your organization should care about. You mentioned that your manager is conflict-averse, which doesn’t necessarily mean you should let her off the hook for dealing with things that should fall into her purview, but you could also talk to this guy’s manager, or whoever organizes these meetings, or someone above all of you. You could simply say, “I’m concerned that this guy is driving women away from these meetings, resulting in them not getting the professional advantages that they’d get if they could comfortably attend.”
(Frankly, you might even replace “women” with “people,” unless you really think it’s only women who are avoiding dealing with this guy.)
And good for you for wanting to take this on instead of just avoiding it.