coworker smells and invades people’s space in meetings

by Ask a Manager on February 4, 2013

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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.

{ 139 comments… read them below or add one }

PEBCAK February 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Is there another woman (or man) you are close with who could be a bit of an ally, here? You don’t want to come off as though you’ve talked about him behind his back, but if you are nervous about doing as AAM suggests, it may help just have another person there for moral support. They don’t have to say/do anything, but rather, just know that the confrontation is about to take place and be nearby if there is a negative reaction, i.e. he comes back with “I’m just friendly; you don’t need to be such a bitch”, and they jump in with “hey, that’s not cool, you should respect everyone’s personal space.

If you don’t need a back-up, good on you, but I know if it were me, I’d probably want to have someone else in the loop and nearby to back me up if needed.

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Meg Murry February 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Based off of PEBCAK’s suggestions – Could you gather the other women who told you about this guy and rally together? Don’t let this one guy drive you all out of the group – arrange to go together. Meet somewhere a few minutes before the meeting starts, and then sit together. If possible, sit all in a row so he can’t sit next to you, or if that isn’t possible at least that way you’ll have backup/moral support if he starts to get too close and you can say “Please don’t sit so close, I need personal space” without worrying. And if you see him chase off another woman at the next meeting, try to find out who she is and invite her to sit with you next time.

Also, if the issue is that everyone needs to sit too close for comfort because the room isn’t large enough, that is worth bringing up to the organizers as well.

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JamieG February 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

“He basically chased me across the long bench we were sitting on throughout the whole meeting”

That implies that there’s plenty of room for people to spread out.

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Long Time Admin February 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

Why the heck are they sitting on a bench instead of in chairs? That would help a little. OP, if you absolutely *must* sit on that bench, bring your biggest purse, tote bag, shopping bag etc. and put it between you and him. Or maybe a bunch of 3″ binders. Or OWN YOUR SPACE, and tell him to stay put while you move away.

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PEBCAK February 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm

These are good ideas. I think the overall thing is that she shouldn’t feel like she has to tackle this alone. While it’s not fair/productive to “gang up” on the guy, people are already gossiping about it, so it’s not like it is just her issue.

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Malissa February 4, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Don’t gang up on the guy. this is a sensitive issue. Ganging up on him will just make him feel picked on. And that’s not going to lead to him listening. This is a delicate situation that may end up with him crying. So having more than one extra person there is going to speed things straight past awkward town and into the land of humiliation.
Ideally the person to have this conversation is the guy’s boss or one person who has the issue. Ideally the person who has the issue should address the problem head-on when it happens. Or shortly there after.
Chances are if this guy is weird and smelly there are more issues involved here than the obvious. Nobody wakes up and says to themselves I’m going into to work stinky and I’m going to invade personal space today. If they do, then it’s not a coworkers problem to be fixing.

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 9:45 pm

You know what? If this dude has been harassing a whole organization of women with his behavior, to the point that he’s interfering with their efforts to advance their careers, I don’t really think his feelings are the most important thing here.

“Wash regularly with soap” and “don’t touch other people without their permission” aren’t exactly rocket science.

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Victoria Nonprofit February 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Agreed.

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Malissa February 4, 2013 at 11:04 pm

What if nobody has told him that this is inappropriate behavior?
What if this guy is smelly because he’s living out of his car?
What if this guy is depressed and these behaviors are coming out of that?
Until it’s positive that this guy has been told wash regularly and don’t touch other people, I would rather assume that’s the problem.
No matter the reasons why, the same discretion for fixing the problem should be used. Once it turns into a lynch mob, the guy is going to be defensive and not listen.

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VintageLydia February 4, 2013 at 11:29 pm

But I dont see where Meg suggests any sort of lynch mob or group confrontation. Just that the previously chased out women sit together in silent solidarity and to politely ask him to give whoever is sitting near him some space.
Depression or other issues may explain the hygiene issues, but the deliberately sitting so close so as to chase a woman down a bench wouldn’t be. You’re doing him no favors by treating him with kid gloves. Whether its social awkwardness, Aspergers, or actual deliberate creepy behavior, polite but firm establishing of physical boundaries is an appropriate solution. If he freaks out at that, that’s on HIM for now not respecting established boundaries. If the behavior continues, it’s absolutely appropriate to confront him as a group or even kick him out of the activity. If he can’t behave after being told how, he can’t play, and I wouldn’t feel a bit sorry for him.

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Meg Murry February 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

Thank you VintageLydia, thats exactly what I meant. If the women go together, then only one person has the outside seat and a chance he will sit next to them – and they might feel more comfortable saying something about personal space with some supportive sitting next to him. And if he sits next to another woman alone, just say to her “hey, are you going to coffee networking next week? Do you want to sit with us?” That’s all – just a group of people sitting together providing silent support to each other, not a gang of people confronting him.

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Um, he’s a grown man, capable of holding down a job and showing up to professional functions. If he hasn’t figured out by this point in his life that he needs to wash and keep his hands to himself, that’s not the other people’s problem.

Where’s his responsibility in all this? Even if he is mentally ill, he’s not a child, and it does him no favors to treat him as if he’s one.

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 11:50 pm

And, while we’re playing “what if”:

What if he’s a sexual predator?
What if he doesn’t care if he stinks?
(Remember the guy who farted deliberately to drive out his female co-worker?)
What if he’s a self-centered jerk?
What if he gets his kicks out of making women uncomfortable?

These are all just as likely (and probably more so) than he’s a sweet, clueless, depressed guy who’ll burst into tears at the slightest bit of criticism.

I’m not saying go at this guy automatically assuming the worst, but it’s pretty clear that, whatever his reasons, gentle hints and hoping he’d get a clue on his own aren’t working. He’s stinky and sits too close, and he needs to stop.

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Long Time Admin February 5, 2013 at 9:15 am

YES!! Rana makes some very good points.

This guy is creepy (trying to get too close to females) and smells bad! Whatever the reason, it needs to be dealt with, and not in a letter.

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ARS February 8, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Actually, those are all probably less likely than he’s just clueless. Not every dude who brushes up against you when he shouldn’t is out to do you harm. Read Gift of Fear. It’s a great book on putting paranoia in perspective.

I liked the original suggestion of taking ONE person with you. Bringing a gang of people with you, no matter what, can very easily (and unintentionally) become a gang up on this guy and unless you know he’s doing it on purpose you’re not helping anyone. Groups tend to get out of control in situations like this simply because it’s emotionally tense.

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Katniss February 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Could we please not use “lynch mob” as a stand-in for being kind of harsh to someone? It’s not an appropriate comparison.

Also, no one is obligated to hold this guys hand. He’s creeping people out. That has to stop, regardless of the reason. Why should he have to be coddled through understanding basic social behavior?

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fposte February 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Yeah, don’t email him. Bring it up directly when he does it. You could even do it as part of an introduction–”Hey, are you Bob from the list? Wow, it’s nice to meet you. Bob, that’s kind of close for me, can you stay back where you were? Thanks. Now, did you see that xkcd about the UNIX bomb?”

And please don’t let this one person wreck something. Whether his behavior is due to cluelessness or not, it’s more important to protect the people who are being made uncomfortable than the source of the discomfort.

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Steve G February 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

I guess it depends how formal the place is. I could totally imagine someone like Yetta from the Nannie shouting “oy vey just get on my lap already, if I slide anymore you’ll be usin me as the bench!” or something like that to this guy and embarressing him once and for all.

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Elizabeth West February 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Oh God, I love Yetta. I would pay actual money to see someone do this.

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Steve G February 4, 2013 at 10:15 pm

we have a guy version of yetta at my job, so this issue wouldnt happen at my job. For example, it was very urgent he called one of his new customers with a list of questions to determine what equipment the client wanted at what price range.

The “yetta,” in a team meeting with corporate listening in, put his hands up “call HIM! He’s been in jail!” and started laughing, like it was so rediculous we tell him to call a client because he’s been in jail! We are supposed to guess what he wants and at what price! Everyone had WTF expressions on their faces.

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Job seeker February 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I can understand you being at a lost on what to say. When I was younger, I worked for a engineering firm and one of the engineers came to work with dog hair all over his clothes everyday. People talked a lot but he must have not heard. I met my husband there and he shared with me that this guy’s wife owned a grooming business inside their home. That explained all the dog hair. But, to me it was just pure laziness on his part not to brush his garments and hang his clothes up away from the hair.

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Ann February 4, 2013 at 3:39 pm

:( I come to work to find pet hair all over me too. I do keep a lint roller for it. But with three pets (two of them 70lb+ fluffy white dogs) I do sometimes look like I’ve got fur leggings on when I get to work.

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Esra February 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm

It can be really hard to keep caring about the pet hair. I’ve just accepted that wherever I am, a cloud of cat hair will follow.

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Oxford Comma February 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

As someone with severe allergies to cats and dogs, I beg of you, please do care.

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Anonymous February 4, 2013 at 7:59 pm

You could be allergic to the dander which isn’t always visible!

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Esra February 4, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I try! With the lint brushes and stuff. I’m allergic to cat dander myself. I’ve just accepted that when I go out to eat, there will be cat hair on the plate.

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Sascha February 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm

This is one reason I like owning black, short haired animals. I sympathize!

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class factotum February 4, 2013 at 5:52 pm

My cats are gray, black, and white. So no matter what I am wearing, their hair shows on it. We have designated cat-free zones for folding laundry and getting dressed. I will miss them when they are dead, but I will not miss their hair.

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Job seeker February 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Ann, I am a pet-lover and owner. My two little dogs get hair on our pants too, but I do use a lint roller to remove the hair. I think if I was going to a professional place to work I would try to not have it to the extent this guy did. It was really bad and he didn’t seem to notice or maybe just didn’t care.

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SJ February 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I used to have a dalmatian, and those damn hairs are barbed at the microscopic level. They work their way into your clothes and it takes forever to get them out – I would be finding hairs in clean clothes months after any dog had been in the house! Lint rollers can’t always do the job…but they can usually make a dent, at least.

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Anna February 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Unless the dog hair was flaring up an allergen, I’m not sure this is equivalent. Thinking that someone is lazy or off-putting in their appearance isn’t really your judgment to make (assuming you weren’t their manager); sure it doesn’t look great, but how does it actually affect you? But if they have a hygiene or personal space issue, then it becomes your problem due to the inconvenience and discomfort it causes.

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Job seeker February 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Your respond was rude.

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Ask a Manager February 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I didn’t read it as rude; Anna was pointing out that one has an impact on others and one is more just about appearance.

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Job seeker February 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Well, it may not have sounded rude to you Alison, but to me it sounded rude. Of course, if someone doesn’t take care of their personal hygiene it has an impact on others. But, I was only saying maybe this person doesn’t realize he smells bad like this guy didn’t realize how he was looking to others. I do think it is kinda lazy to go to a professional office with as much dog hair as this guy everyday had on his coat and clothes. That is what lint-rollers are for. People make judgments everyday on how you present yourself. I wasn’t trying to be ugly but I felt this was a rude response to what I was saying.

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Anna February 4, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Truly didn’t mean to be rude, simply disagreeing that it is the same thing and stating why I disagreed. Perhaps you mistook what I meant when I said “wasn’t your judgment to make” — obviously, you are within your right to have an opinion (i.e., that he is being lazy). But in my opinion, unless a peer’s appearance has a direct affect on you, it is up to a manager or superior to determine whether or not that co-worker’s disheveled/untucked/pet-hair-covered appearance is a detriment to his work or professionalism.

But otherwise, I think you were simply misreading my tone. That can be tough on the internet! :)

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Job seeker February 4, 2013 at 6:20 pm

I am sorry. Maybe, I was just over-sensitive. I am fairly new to responding to anything on the internet. I didn’t mean to be rude to you either.:-)

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Lisa February 5, 2013 at 12:04 am

Kudos for the reasonable discussion and for apologizing here! I am a pet owner and see both sides. Pet hair is just part of life for me. What might be “lots” of hair for someone with no pets is what my coats look like AFTER lint rolling multiple times. It’s smart and professional to take care of your appearance, but there is an upper limit to what we can expect people to do. With a grooming business in his home he might just not be able to wear clothing free of pet hair, period.

Jamie February 5, 2013 at 7:21 am

Just going to chime in for pet hair tips:

For fabrics which attract the hair the most those dry cleaning bags are fabulous. After I wash and drip dry my sweaters they go into dry cleaning bags (either closet or drawer – depending on the sweater) and it keeps them hair free.

Pledge Fabric Sweeper is fabulous. I kept one in my desk drawer back when I had a cloth chair at work in case I missed any on my clothes. It worked where a lint brush won’t – on those stubborn barbed hairs which work their way in.

Mini lint tape in my purse, big one in the house and car. Packing tape works too, in a pinch.

Swiffers for the house – my life changed when I discovered Swiffer dusters for the floor as well as the regular ones. I have a long haired Borador who sheds like it’s his job and this keeps it manageable.

I have a house full of pets and the only time I’m covered in pet hair is when I’m swiffering the floors or emptying the vacuum cleaner. I’m not saying a stray one doesn’t sneak by now and again – which I take care of as soon as I notice it, but I doubt very much people think I’m the crazy pet lady by looking at my sweaters.

Anonymous February 4, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Speaking as someone who has both cats and an allergy to them, I’ve never had dander/fur on my clothes trigger my allergy. Also concerning the fur, after awhile you just stop noticing it. If you have a cat, you will have cat fur somewhere on your person at all times.

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Julie K February 4, 2013 at 11:47 pm

I spend about 20-30 minutes on my black coat with the lint roller, and there’s still some white dog fur left when I think I’m finished. So I’m definitely not lazy, but you can only go over the same coat so many times before you gave up.

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Job seeker February 5, 2013 at 1:07 am

I hear you about white dog fur. I have a precious little white one and and beautiful golden retriever that really sheds. It is especially hard with black pants and a black coat. I wear both and sometimes the dry-cleaners help.

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 7:24 am

Wool? My youngest has a wool pea coat and that’s the worst to de hair. The Fabric Sweeper helped where a lint brush didn’t but we still took it to the dry cleaner and ever since when he gets home it immediately goes into a garment bag in his closet – haven’t had a problem since.

It helps that I have the most fastidious 17 year old on the planet – but as long as he doesn’t drop it on the floor or my bed we’re okay.

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Lils February 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm

omg, all this talk just made me get out my pet roller and give myself a once-over. Y’all are right–you just don’t notice/care after a few weeks of getting your first puppy. I need to try more on this…especially in this black sweater, wow.

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Amouse February 4, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Highly agree with AAM about not responding via e-mail. Writing an e-mail about something awkward just recently cost me a friendship with someone i met at work. I am convinced if I’d just casually brought it up in conversation we’d be fine now. That’s a different situation but it just illustrates how things become a bigger deal when they are put in writing.

I think it’s good of you to give this guy the benefit of the doubt but it does kind of sound sketchy with him moving close again after you moved away. One thing that came to mind was: could this be a case of different cultural norms for personal space?

In any case, this shouldn’t be causing you and others to opt out of this discussion group. Provided his intentions are good, you might be doing him a huge favour by just casually nipping this in the bud the next time you’re at that meeting.

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Ash February 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Cultural norms could explain why he sits so close in the first place, but it wouldn’t explain why he intentionally keeps moving into the OP’s (and others’) personal space. I can’t think of any culture off the top of my head where “stay within people’s personal boundaries at all times, even if they move away from you” is A Thing That Is Done.

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fposte February 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I’ve seen it happen in conversations with people who are standing–there is a cultural range of appropriate distance and people do move to close it up if you’re “too far.” But this was in sitting, and it doesn’t actually sound like there was a conversation going on, so I join you in being skeptical.

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A Bug! February 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm

I’m not the most worldly person in the world, so I try to be open to and tolerant of different cultural norms and the like.

That said, I really would like to know if there are any cultures where it’s considered normal to sit so close to a near-stranger that your bodies are touching, even when there is plenty of space on either side. I do not want to accidentally travel to this place.

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Ash February 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Like fposte said, there are cultures (Europe comes to mind) that have closer “personal space bubbles” than Americans do. It’s not meant to be rude or anything, they just naturally stand and sit closer to people in general.

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A Bug! February 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Right, and I understand that, but “I am going to sit next to you, so closely that our thighs touch, because this is normal, and if you move yourself away I am going to move myself closer to you, repeatedly, because this is normal”?

I just have a hard time seeing it being a purely cultural thing with the way he’s described as chasing her along the bench.

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jill February 4, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Not really a cultural norm, but I wonder if the guy could be thinking that the OP is trying to make more room on the bench and is trying to follow suit to help? Doesn’t really cover why he’s sitting so close in the first place, but I’ve been in lots of situations where it seemed everyone just assumed that only one ticket window was open/only one door went in, whatever weird collective action problem, that cause a huge logjam!

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JT February 4, 2013 at 6:58 pm

The following is not normal. Touching might not be abnormal.

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FreeThinkerTX February 5, 2013 at 12:52 am

Well, we do know that there is enough empty space on the bench for the OP to move the entire length of it, with Smelly Guy chasing her. So that means that at the start of the event, he purposefully chose to sit *thisclose* to her. And when she moved away – because there was so much free space – he kept scooting next to her so that his thigh was always touching hers.

That’s Creep with a capital C.

And, FWIW, I’m a member of Mensa and have many highly intelligent friends who fall somewhere on the Autism scale. Some call themselves Aspie, some call themselves NNT (for non-neurotypical). But NONE of them would chase a woman down a bench just to remain in physical contact with her!!

Jamie February 5, 2013 at 7:29 am

I was going to chime in on the autism thing, since a lot of people bring that up whenever someone is acting odd at work.

My son has high functioning autism (not Aspergers) so I’ve been acquainted with many people on the spectrum over the years and too much physical contact isn’t a problem people typically have when dealing with someone on the spectrum.

Nor is the showering thing – that’s a learned behavior.

But seriously, if my son was on a bench and a stranger sat close enough to touch him his initial reaction would be to try to find the nearest window to leap through.

And there are many, many causes of social awkwardness that have nothing to do with being on the spectrum.

Linea February 5, 2013 at 5:24 am

I’m really sorry, but since it’s an interest of mine, may I just add that Europeans have vastly different norms concerning personal space – the peoples in the North (Scandinavians, Brits, etc.) generally prefer much more distance than those in the South (e.g. Italians, Greeks, etc.)

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JT February 4, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Yeah, I’ve seen it standing.

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Linea February 5, 2013 at 5:21 am

there is this concept to explain it, I’ve heard it called the “intercultural tango” – where the person from a culture with a larger “personal space bubble” keeps moving slightly away during a conversation, and the person from a culture with the opposite personal space norms keeps moving slightly closer – thus “dancing” across the room.
couldn’t really find any texts online right now, the closest would be this: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-12-05/entertainment/9004100732_1_languages-middle-east-space-invaders.

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Anonymous February 5, 2013 at 10:12 am

I didn’t realize this was a thing, but it makes sense. As a European myself, I’m probably more comfortable at being closer to someone than my lovely American’s here. I do however, make an effort to stand my ground even when I think someone is too close. Once I’ve chosen a position to stand in, I let the other person choose the appropriate distance. Then I proceed to forget about the closeness/farness. Avoids the whole tango situation and saves me a lot of effort.

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elikit February 6, 2013 at 4:52 am

Yeah, and I can’t remember which culture it is, where the norm is that the men only aggressively invade the space of women…

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J February 17, 2013 at 11:05 am

I live overseas in a very expat-dominate culture. I’ve actually noticed this A LOT with men from cultures where they aren’t meant to touch women as often– South East Asian, Arabic etc. Because I’m a white woman, many of them try to sneaky-touch myself and other friends, because they assume they can get away with it. They’ll brush against us, or pinch your butt in passing (SERIOUSLY), whatever. I’ve been sat too close to frequently on public transit etc. I think it has more to do with segregated societies, where they don’t have the same life time of interaction with women as we do in the West. These are also the guys though that just will NOT take no for an answer. just this weekend I was chased around a dance floor by a mad bum pincher, who only stopped when several male friends intervened to told him to back off.

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The IT Manager February 4, 2013 at 3:34 pm

What AAM said. I understand why you would prefer email rather than having that awkward conversation face-to-face, but don’t do it. It just seems to make it much bigger deal when you put it down in writing like that. I’m having a hard time articulating exactly why, but it seems the kind of thing that should be handled when the action is happening and not days or weeks later.

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Wilton Businessman February 4, 2013 at 3:36 pm

IT Nerds. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 7:31 am

Fortunately some of us shower and wouldn’t touch a co-worker on a bet.

And some of us aren’t nerds at all. :)

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PPK February 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

It sounds like the OP doesn’t think this guy is actively being creepy. Given that, I might go with blurting out, “I need more personal space” and make a shooing motion. Does that sound terrible? Sort of, but in the IT geeky world (in which I work), I think it could work. Of course, that route might result in “personal space!” becoming on often used catch phrase for any situation in the future.

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Long Time Admin February 5, 2013 at 9:20 am

“Given that, I might go with blurting out, “I need more personal space” and make a shooing motion. Does that sound terrible?”

No, it doesn’t sound terrible. It sounds like something a NORMAL person would say.

And it’s better than stabbing him in the thigh with a nail file.

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Emily K February 6, 2013 at 1:32 am

I can get a little bit of tunnel-vision when I’m feeling very motivated and goal-oriented. Once, at work, I needed something off a shelf that a slightly awkward nerdy (but generally well-liked and not creepy) coworker was partially blocking. With my laser focus on my task, I inadvertently got a little too close to him just for the moment I was reaching past him, and as I stepped away and out of his space he made an “oh my” sort of face and started to make a comment that I could tell after a few words was going to be off-color. Without even thinking, I blurted out, “Don’t make it weird!” He stopped mid-sentence and everyone around laughed and then we all went back to doing our work. I’m sure it was a little embarrassing for the guy, but it really wasn’t a big deal–nobody ever brought it up again after it happened, the coworker never made a remark of that nature about me again, and he and I continued to enjoy a positive working relationship. I think that I was lucky enough to have reflexively done the right thing by nipping the situation in the bud in a direct but very off-the-cuff way that didn’t seem to be shining a spotlight of attention on him.

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elikit February 6, 2013 at 4:56 am

That’s awesome! Sometimes I walk away from an interaction mentally telling a person, “You made that weird” but I’d love to pre-empt the weirdness.

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AMG February 4, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I wonder if he’s entirely aware of what he’s doing. My trick is to ‘take up’ space while I am talking, shifting my position in my seat, need something out of my purse, push my hair over my shoulder, or something like that. Many times, people realize how close they are and scoot back, especially when your elbow whizzes by their face. Just make sure you don’t actually hit him. :)

You could also put your purse, jacket, etc between the two if you so he can’t keep scooting without sitting on your stuff. you could need something out of your purse and say, ‘excuse me –I need a little space to get something out of my purse.’ I tend to go with hints in cases like this at first, then try the direct approach. If you keep repeating that you need him to scoot back, it should work.

One place where I would advocate getting up and getting away is the airplane. A large guy say next to me once on a completely full flight and proceeded to use up most of my leg room, prop his arms on TOP of mine all the up to the shoulder, and all but sat on me. I asked him as many times as I needed to (about 10 or so) to not lean on me, even waking his sorry *$$ up to shove his arms off of me, etc. He got really mad, but backed off. Eventually.

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Esra February 4, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I’ll admit I’ve passive-aggressively rummaged through my purse and thrown some elbows on public transit to keep people from leaning on me.

But in a setting like OP’s, purses/backpacks can be very good barriers when spoken requests for space don’t seem to get the point across.

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Amouse February 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm

The flip-side of this is when you’re making absolute sure you’re not touching the other person sitting next to you on the bus and they are carelessly elbowing you as they reach for crap in their purse. THAT is just soooo inconsiderate!

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Lils February 7, 2013 at 1:29 pm

“thrown some elbows” love this method!

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Jackie February 4, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Sometimes there’s no reason to bring a purse or coat to a meeting, but maybe try a piles of manila folders or a textbook or two to use as a buffer? It kind of suck to have to pull that maneuver, but if no one will speak up and and address his behavior, that might be the kind of recourse to try.
And you know what works on planes to keep your space? Knitting. I don’t know why it keeps the alpha-male space-hogs at bay, but it’s like kryptonite. And bamboo needles make it through security, so no worries there.

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AMG February 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Great tip! I will start knitting before my next flight. Thanks!

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KellyK February 4, 2013 at 4:53 pm

I’ve only ever flown sitting next to either my husband or coworkers I like, so I’ve never had the misfortune of getting stuck next to a space hog, but I will definitely remember this! (I knit on planes to keep myself amused and de-stressed, for which it also works really well.) Just make sure you check the size of your scissors if you bring them–I had to hand over my favorite pair of little yarn scissors because they were too long.

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Elizabeth West February 4, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Aahh! I just learned to knit. Imma try this. :)

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class factotum February 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm

What IS it with some men on airplanes? My 13-hour flight a few months ago was made even more miserable because I was stuck next to a seat hog who, based on his phone calls before we took off, was in a very, very bad mood, thanks to that bitch, Renee!

He was a big guy and spilled into my space and spread his legs and kept touching me. I tried pulling my legs in and he took that, I think, as an invitation to take even more space, not as the “Don’t touch me!” statement it was meant to be.

I don’t care that the seats are small. It’s not my problem – or shouldn’t be my problem – that he doesn’t have enough room. If someone has to be scrunched up and uncomfortable, let it be him and not me.

I did have the guts to say something to the guy next to me on the overnight bus through Guatemala, though. At the very beginning of the 12-hour ride, I said, “We’re going to have to come to an agreement about how we use this armrest.” That shocked him into sharing.

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gabrielle February 4, 2013 at 7:06 pm

“We’re going to have to come to an agreement about how we use this armrest.”

Oooh, I am using this next time I am seated next to A Sprawler.

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AMG February 4, 2013 at 8:25 pm

me too! lol!

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FreeThinkerTX February 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

The only space hogs I’ve ever encountered on a plane were men, and I used to be a super-frequent flyer because of business. I quickly learned to spread myself out as soon as a man sat down next to me (or vice-versa) in order to claim my space. As in, if I was sitting in the aisle seat (which I always made a point to book), I’d sit up straight, square my shoulders, put both arms on both arm rests. and then cross my leg in such a way that my knee was slightly over the demarcation line of the center seat. I did *nothing* to suggest that I was a shrinking violet concerned about offending anyone with my presence. It worked wonders on the Captain Corporate types. We would usually come to a mutual detente about 20-30 minutes into the flight.

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Anonymous February 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm

You took up both armrests in the aisle seat? As a fellow frequent traveler, I’ve always let the middle seat person have the left armrest. If I somehow got stuck with the middle seat (generally foreign airlines where I had zero status), you better believe I took both armrests. You get the window and the aisle, I’ll take the armrests.

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FreeThinkerTX February 5, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Oh, just at the beginning of the flight, to claim my legitimate “turf”. Basically just letting the man in the seat next to me know that I wasn’t going to bend my body in half to lean out in the aisle so that he could spread into my space. That’s what I meant by a detente eventually being reached early on in the flight.

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Job seeker February 6, 2013 at 3:38 am

I don’t claim any legitimate “turf” when we have flown. We do try to get an aisle seat but really you saying you hog both arm rest and taking up all the room. I do believe in trying to be polite and I would not appreciate a fellow passenger doing this to me. I believe I would speak up to you and ask you to please give me some room. I agree I would never call you a shrinking violet.

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Omne February 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I was flying back from Amsterdam a few years ago, an 8 hour flight. I was in a window seat and things were going well, the plane was pretty much full and nobody was next to me. Right before they closed the door a very, very large couple got on and squeezed in next to me. I was quite literally crushed up against the wall to the point my body was curving to fill in the gap. Luckily the flight attendant noticed and found me an open seat a few rows back.

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Anonymous February 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm

If you put your coat between the two of you it will get stinky, too.

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Chocolate Teapot February 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

As I have explained before for smelly individuals, squirt some perfume onto your collar/lapel, so that you can have access to a nicer scent.

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AMG February 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm

But eventually, you become accustomed to the perfume, but you could still smell the guy. Also, there’s the personal space issue.

Maybe spray HIM with some perfume? That should get his attention.

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Long Time Admin February 5, 2013 at 9:28 am

YES! Or Febreeze. According to the commercials, the space will smell fresh like mountain air.

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Ash February 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Some of us are allergic to most perfumes and other smelly spritzer crap, so that wouldn’t work for being the sprayer or the sprayee.

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AMG February 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm

And it could be considered assault, so there’s that drawback.

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Malissa February 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Honestly I’d rather sit next to somebody who hadn’t showered for a month than someone who uses perfume liberally. One may be annoying, but the other could leave me with a week of troubled breathing.

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Jean February 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Thanks to the other commenters for speaking up on behalf of people who are sensitive to fragrances! For some folks it’s a serious impediment to breathing in & out as per usual.

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Chocolate Teapot February 5, 2013 at 1:25 am

All I’m saying is that the perfume on the collar worked on the day that I visited the Paris sewage works.

I suppose it’s a modern version of the clove orange pomander balls people used to carry in the 16th Century. Now there’s an idea…

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Jill February 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm

OP you say you work for a large university…I work in government so I just wanted to put this out there that if your university is a publicly funded one (like a state university) you definately should NOT put this in an email. Emails of government entities are generally part of “public records” so, if it wouldn’t be something you’d want potentially broadcast to the whole citizenry, don’t put it in writing.

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Kathryn T. February 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I wonder if he does the personal-space creeping to men, too. Seems like he would if it’s a cultural issue.

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Victoria Nonprofit February 4, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Agreed. I think folks are being awfully generous here, when what I’m seeing is a guy who is taking advantage of folks’ desire to avoid making a scene to inflict himself on women. Gross.

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Anna February 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Yes, I think that too many people are making the assumption that “socially awkward” and “creep” must be mutually exclusive. It’s possible that it’s not quite as nefarious as you’re describing — where he’s not necessarily taking manipulative advantage, but he is still focusing his energies on the women in a not-entirely-innocent way. But yes, until I get confirmation that he isn’t doing this to men as well, I’m also giving it a bit of a suspicious side-eye.

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Another Ellie February 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

This is something I’m particularly sensitive to. I’ve been in many situations/organizations either dominated by nerdy tech guys, or characterized by that one nerd with no social skills. “Oh, but he’s just oblivious to social skills, cut him some slack,” is used far too often to allow these guys to creep on women. Sometimes it is innocent and he just doesn’t understand that touching a grown woman is verboten, but sometimes it is not, and all the time the women shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable/violated/vulnerable just because some guy has no social skills and nobody wants to tell him not to touch them.

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JamieG February 4, 2013 at 8:22 pm

My favorite analogy to use in this situation is: If someone’s standing on your foot, you want them to move and are perfectly entitled to tell them so. It doesn’t matter if they don’t realize they’re standing on your foot; it doesn’t matter if nobody ever told them not to stand on people’s feet; they still need to get off of your foot!

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JamieG February 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Oops, should’ve scrolled down first!

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Agreed. The people I’ve known who were socially awkward but not creepy generally appreciated being told when they were crossing a line (and their usual reaction was embarrassment and an apology, not a repetition of the annoying behavior).

This guy is being creepy and gross, and his behavior needs to stop, regardless of whatever his personal issues may be.

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Long Time Admin February 5, 2013 at 9:29 am

I’ll bet the men have already dealt with this guy, and that’s why he’s sitting with the women.

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A Bug! February 4, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I’m curious about the seating arrangements during this meeting, and whether it’s no coincidence that the writer was the only person who ended up sharing a “long” bench with the smelly guy. I’m sure it’s a known fact that the guy is smelly, so I wonder if the writer ended up sitting next to him because she is new and didn’t know the score.

I can easily picture a situation where people show up and intentionally occupy a bench to capacity before the guy arrives so he’s forced to sit somewhere else, or people specifically choose individual chairs to sit in, because it’s easier to adapt and avoid than it is to address the issue head-on.

In fact, I half-wonder if some of the regulars found it highly entertaining to watch the writer try to escape the guy, like some sort of messed-up hazing.

Anyway, all of this is pure speculation without much to back it up, but writer, if it sounds like it might be hitting the mark then you might want to question your continued attendance just based on the fact that everyone else who goes is kind of a tool for letting this happen repeatedly.

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The B February 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Sounds like the typical creeper. I’ve met some at conventions.
Please speak up about this. People like to make up excuses about this behavior (maybe he’s European, maybe he has Aspergers), but this is an issue that should be firmly addressed.

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Zahra February 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Yes, please, if you can, do address this. Everywhere I looked in the gamer sphere (and, okay, I look mostly in feminist-friendly spaces), people with Asperger’s said repeatedly that they learned how to recognize social cues and accordingly. But, first, someone has to tell them “Don’t do that, it’s not okay”.

If someone gets offended, feel free to use the “Foot stepping” analogy (Cliff notes version: if someone steps on your foot, regardless of intent, they apologize, they don’t go into a huge justification about how they didn’t mean to while still being on your foot.) Complete version of the original: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/07/31/readercon-harassment-etc/#comment-346433

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Another Ellie February 4, 2013 at 7:40 pm

I love the foot-stepping analogy. :)

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 7:48 am

Absolutely social cues can be learned – which is why getting a kid on the spectrum into early intervention is so crucial.

My son needed to be taught things like eye contact, salutations, responses (when you’re having a conversation and the other person stops talking making a “listening noise” to show you’ve been listening even if you have nothing to add. Most of us just picked that up – it’s a thing that needs to be consciously taught to someone on the spectrum.)

Something else which was crucial and this takes years is that they need to learn not to bolt rudely if someone inadvertently invades their space. How to casually move over and regain your boundaries without jumping and acting as if the person just grabbed your butt or poured acid on you.

I cannot tell you how many hours of role play we did in addition to work with trained therapists on things like ending a conversation, someone sitting too close to you, eye contact.

Funny, the first thing people mention when they meet him and have since he was little is that he has beautiful manners. He opens doors, he helps people struggling with packages, he’s gives his seat on the bus to someone older or with bags, I don’t think he’s ever forgotten a please or thank you. My point isn’t to brag on my kid…lol…but to say that social behaviors can absolutely be learned even if it’s a longer road and a struggle. But if people didn’t learn them while young it’s much tougher as they get older – and I’m not sure it’s something a co-worker could teach.

But I do get a little bothered when, not just here, someone is a little socially “off” and people jump to autism or creepy. Maybe I’m just sensitive about it, but autism does not equal creepy. My son is profoundly shy and yes, very awkward when meeting someone for the first time. It makes job interviews a special circle in hell for him.

But once you get to know him and aren’t a bully he’s just a sweet kid who’s really quiet, but when he does speak he’s smart and funny and knows more about movies, anime, and comic books, art, and American history than anyone you’ve ever met. It may take him a little longer to learn some things, but once he’s got it it’s a lock and he knows it forever. He’s obsessive about doing things correctly. If only you could get a job without an interview he would be set. Sigh.

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Ask a Manager February 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

I feel like we should link to this comment every time someone says “maybe he has Asperger’s.” Thank you.

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Amouse February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am

Agreed!

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Amouse February 5, 2013 at 9:23 am

Jamie, you mentioned therapy so I was curious if your son ever participated in a music therapy session?

I’m going to be observing and taking part of three music therapy sessions with three autistic boys this week and I am so excited!

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 9:44 am

Music therapy was incorporated into his OT.

Kinda funny story – we have a piano that was my late mom’s but no one plays. So one of the home OT therapists thought it would be great to use it for fine motor skills. So they tried to teach him basic stuff and he wasn’t grasping it. So she tried to teach me and yep…also couldn’t learn to play anything. I offered her the number of my old piano teacher who assured my mom I must have many other talents …but I come from a family of four kids, thousands of dollars in lessons and not one of us could master chopsticks.

So hard to know where the disability leaves off and the total genetic lack of musical talent with anything comes in. :)

Xylophone was fabulous though – because he has CAPD (central auditory processing disorder) which means his brain processes what he hears a split second later than is typical, so it’s easy for people with this to get lost in a sentence – be deaf for content in acoustically bad environments, etc. so a lot of sounds bothered him – but he loved the xylophone. Something about the sharpness of the sound just resonated with him.

(rant – we had both therapists we went to and home therapists to work with him in his environment. Seriously – that’s the difference between a good school district and not – home therapy, respite care, excellent specialized teachers….and this should be available to every single child who needs it regardless of their district. / rant)

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Amouse February 5, 2013 at 9:54 am

Oh I’m so glad they were able to adapt the music therapy to find an instrument that helped him :-)

I hope I’m able to help lots of children like your son over my career. Autistic children and children with speech disorders are my main areas that I wish to specialize in.

I completely agree that all children who are in need of these resources should have them available.

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Anon February 5, 2013 at 9:37 am

I love this. Thank you. I think adults with Aspergers may actually be the opposite of this guy – aware that they don’t know quite what to do in social interactions, and would NEVER sit this close to someone or be smelly.

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 10:01 am

Right – if anything they’d be more likely to be freaking out about this guy because the touching and the smells can both trigger sensory integreation issues.

There is one last thing I wanted to mention about the correlation some people draw between creepy and autistic.

I’ve seen my son and others who also have high functioning autism in new environments. They watch. They watch others because they are consciously trying to figure out the social norms for this particular group of people. They want to engage but they need to collect the information first and they need to make sure it’s safe to do so. The world is full of people who are NOT safe if you are a little different.

Some will stare too much while doing this – others like my son will look around but not directly at anyone or anything so he seems distracted or really lost.

It’s akin to seeing someone on top of a diving board trying to talk themselves into jumping. They want to jump, but they are nervous so they need to make sure it’s safe and kind of talk themselves into making the leap.

The louder and more boisterous a group the harder to over come the fear of trying to join.

I think that’s where people can write them off as “that weird person who never says anything and then blurts out something in a clumsy way.”

Just something to keep in mind – and this isn’t related to this OP – but for people struggling like that it takes more courage to try to join a group than even the most introverted of us neurologically typical people can wrap our heads around.

And yes, to Anon’s point, the snugglie and stinky aspect of this guy points to anything besides autism. Trust me, most people with autism are way more worried about strangers touching them than trying to cozy up to strangers!

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AMG February 5, 2013 at 9:44 am

Sounds like a great kid with a great mom! As the mom of a special needs child (not Autism though), I get sensitive and defensive too, so can see where the Autism comments would have bothered you.

This is so beautifully written. :)

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Job seeker February 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Jamie, I admire you so much. Your son is very lucky to have such a wonderful and caring mom. One of my best friends has a son with autism but highly functional. He has just now started college and one of the brightest young men around. She has worked very hard with him like you and he is doing so well. Your son is blessed to have a mom be in his corner so much.:-)

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A Non Mouse February 4, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Okay, I’ve said this here before and I’ll say it again–this dude’s behavior? It does not matter if he’s conscious of it or not. I repeat: it. does. not. matter.

What matters? Is that he’s freaking people out. He’s freaking them out enough that they are avoiding the meetings entirely rather than run the risk of dealing with this guy. His behavior is actively driving people away.

So if he does it again? Call him on it. You can be polite about it, as AAM mentioned above, she has some great scrips for how to confront this guy. “Excuse me, please don’t sit so close, you are making me uncomfortable.” “Excuse me, I need more space than that.”

Once you say this? You will very quickly learn whether or not he is genuinely socially awkward, or genuinely a creeper. A socially awkward person will apologize profusely, likely feel embarrassed, back off, and after the initial awkwardness passes, it will be fine. A creeper will likely get defensive, sulk, and act like you’re the one who’s out of line for daring to assert reasonable boundaries.

You can’t know which one this guy is until you speak up. But let me assure you: genuine creepers DEPEND ON YOUR SILENCE in order to continue to get away with being creepy. If you speak up, and he reacts in the creeper alert way, tell someone else at the meeting. Tell someone “Guy X was sitting uncomfortably close, and I politely asked him to give me some space, and he did things a and b and was a jerk about it and continued to make me uncomfortable.” Make it known that Guy X is a creeper and his behavior has driven away the other women in your professional group. Do not give him the safety of your silence. It will force his hand, and he’ll be the one who has to change his behavior.

If he doesn’t turn out to be a creeper, the situation will resolve a lot more easily. But either way, you need to speak up first.

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 9:50 pm

This!

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Elizabeth West February 4, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

It won’t stop if no one says anything, no matter what the origin of the behavior. Also, re something someone said earlier, who doesn’t know it’s not okay to shove your leg against people? That’s just….ick.

I have noooo problem telling people what I think/to back off, LOL. I’m gonna love being a little old lady! “Back off, sonny!” *WHACK*

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Letter Writter February 4, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Hey, thanks heaps for answering my question, and thanks to everybody for their comments.

To address some of the practical questions that came up: it’s an informal gathering of typically 5-8 people at a campus coffee shop, all sitting around in a U-shape at one end of a giant rectangular table with bench seats. It is a dinner-party sort of atmosphere – there tends to be only one conversation going on at once that everybody audiences. He came in very late and sat down at one end of the U-shape, which was next to me, and which placed him slightly out of the action. I suspect he wanted get closer to the centre of the conversation.

He is from a different culture than I am, but I don’t think it’s really productive to speculate about the role of that, because it doesn’t change my problem!

In terms of calling in reinforcements: our university is the size of a small regional city and I’ve lost touch with the women who told me the gossip (we only met once, at a training course, several years ago). The convenor of the group was the person sitting right on the other side of me (ergh, I was forced to encroach on his personal space in turn). He and smelly dude appear very friendly, so I don’t think the politics there are in my favour.

I get where everybody is coming from in thinking email makes it a big deal. However, I talked a good game in my letter, but I am a socially anxious bear. So dealing with this in person is going to have to wait till a day when I am feeling very brave. :)

My particular fear is that because of the fairly intimate whole-group interaction style, if I tell him off on the spot it will be overheard by the whole group and become the subject of the group conversation. I can sort of imagine someone other than me managing this smoothly, but it’s hard to imagine Socially Anxious Bear doing it.

I could definitely get away with putting my bag on the seat next to me, so I will make a note to do that.

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Elle February 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm

There’s a great site about etiquette that describes what is needed as a “polite spine”. You don’t need to be rude. Just say politely: could you move over slightly? Thanks.

Practice it and practice smiling and having a light tone when talking.

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fposte February 4, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Agreed with Elle. You’re not “telling him off,” so don’t gear up as if you were. It’s not going to matter if the group hears you say “Can you scoot over that way a little?” If you think the cause is that he’s trying to get in closer, you can also just offer to swap places.

More generally speaking, you are almost never limited to the two choices of silence or telling somebody off, and merely speaking up is very, very different than taking a person to task.

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Rana February 4, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Also agree with Elle. Also? My experience with these things is that if anyone’s paying attention besides you and creepy dude, odds are strongly in your favor that they agree with you and are silently grateful that someone has finally spoken up.

Wouldn’t you have been grateful if someone spoke up when he was sitting too close to you? You would, right? Or if someone else was sitting near him, and said, “Please don’t sit so close to me,” you’d think that was reasonable, right? So assume that most people there are more like you than they are like him, and don’t feel like you’re being rude when what you’re really doing is defending your right, and the collective right of the group, to not be grossed out and creeped on.

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Lisa February 5, 2013 at 12:16 am

Be brave! You can do this. Remember, you are doing this not for yourself but for everyone who wants to be at this event but can’t because THEY don’t have the nerve to speak up.

I’m part of a small political group where we have a socially awkward guy who does things like this, and when he latches onto someone he will follow them like a lost duckling all evening no matter how hard they try to lose him or how many people are in the room. It’s hard to correct him, because he does get very depressed when he realizes he’s out of line and not welcome to be as close to people as he’d like to be, but as the sitting president of the organization it falls to me to say something, and I do what I have to do.

It really isn’t easy no matter how you slice it, but direct, to the point, and get it over with right now is my preference after a couple years of having to police this guy’s behavior periodically when he latches onto a new person. Try phrases like…

“Excuse me, but I don’t know if you realize you’re sitting so close that your leg is touching mine. Please slide over a bit.” (If he only moves a few micrometers) “A little farther, please. I need some space.”

“Could you stand a little farther away please? Thanks for understanding.”

(in response to unwanted hug attempt) “I prefer to shake hands.” (step back, shaking head, while reaching out for handshake)

“I don’t think there are any more people coming, so can we spread out a little bit here? I need some breathing room.”

“If you’re having trouble hearing the conversation, I’m happy to trade places. Otherwise, I need you to scoot over and give me some room.”

If he doesn’t correct his behavior after a couple of gentle corrections, you may need to be very specific. Use a friendly, kind tone, but specific words. “I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t know if I made it clear enough that I really don’t like it when people so close to me that they are touching me without my permission. From now on, if you are going to sit next to me, please leave enough space that you can stick your elbow out without touching me.”

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AMG February 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

I love this.

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N. February 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Oooooh I didn’t even see this comment before, somehow I was picturing you at a work place conference room being chased down the bench, with plenty of space to spare for you both, (so disregard whatever I wrote that doesn’t apply to your situation) in this case I would say scout out and propose a different venue for your meeting. You are worried he is preventing females from attending, I personally would decline meeting in such a place after suffering through it the first time, not because he attended but because I don’t like being confined in close quarters like that. Only two people can be at the end, and it is not fair to demand that on must always be me. Frankly I am not on friendly enough terms (well with anyone) to want to be in the center of the U if it is unnecessary and because the meeting is optional, once I found out the seating arrangement I’d likely never go again. Just saying it wouldn’t necessarily be smelly dude that drove me away, just the prospect of being sandwiched in would end it for me. Gosh, now I don’t know if I would tell smelly dude anything, and I most certainly wouldn’t complain to HR that he is driving people away, especially since there are naturally close quarters involved in an optional event that is not officially sponsored by the company/university. Unfortunately to me it would be a lump it or leave situation.

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Lamb July 9, 2014 at 6:42 am

It sounds, N., like you would find the entire situation untenable, and that’s what would drive you away, rather than this guy being a smelly space-invader. If that’s the case then of course you wouldn’t complain about him, because him not being unpleasant wouldn’t make you come back to the meetings. But for people who don’t normally mind the U-bench etc. it is reasonable to tell this guy he is too close. Not minding an inconvenient setting doesn’t mean one has given up the right to all forms of personal comfort, such as personal space and bodily autonomy.
Similarly, for example, someone might not mind being in the middle-most seat of the U, but if something comes up and they suddenly have to leave, people do have to get up and let them out, even though they didn’t mind being blocked in before.

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Andrew February 4, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Socially anxious or not, you’re entitled to be unthreatened and comfortable at work. Speak up! It’s the fastest and clearest way to let this guy–and everybody else–know how you feel. As long as you’re polite, firm, and to the point, you will win respect, not derision.

The anticipation of confrontation is usually much worse than the confrontation itself.

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Amouse February 4, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Well I’m a mouse and I’m not ashamed ;P
PS: I know your name wasn’t directed at me, I just thought it was the opportunity for a corny joke

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Amouse February 4, 2013 at 9:59 pm

weird, that was supposed to be in response to a comment above hahah sorry about that :-)

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N. February 5, 2013 at 4:20 am

Sorry, but yeah OP and anyone else has the right NOT to be touched. Not sure how many ride the bus here… after many years, many smelly people and *men* touching me when they didn’t have to (women tended not to do it as much), I am all about asserting personal space. I will make it into a “thing” because whether it is accidental or deliberate it needs to stop. OP should go to the meeting and if it happens again, say something. Even if it is only “I need more space would you mind scooting over?” If diplomacy doesn’t work, then you need to be concerned with motives.

Too many women are afraid to say anything, and that should tip them off that they need to… let’s say he does call her a “bitch,” that is the reaction of someone deliberately trying to get away with something. If the reaction is “gosh I am sorry” then you can take it from there. I don’t think any HR can risk siding with smelly man if he is the former… what would they say? “Yeah she is a problem employee, he just touched her and she didn’t like it, what a baby” ? Yeah that is lawsuit fodder and any HR (even University HR) knows it. At least I know I would be filing a complaint against the company/University if that is how it played out… I read a book about women being worried about looking rude by crossing the street if a suspicious person was on the same side. The book’s answer was if they weren’t really following you nobody would notice or care if you crossed. If they DO care then you had better be worried. I give people plenty of space, always. If they don’t take it, you NEED to wonder why… I am just amazed that while some people feel the need to to be sensitive to smelly man, some of same people would feel I am overeacting to being touched. To this I say: if I gotta respect your quirk, respect mine!

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Ask a Manager February 5, 2013 at 8:30 am

Agreed — but one thing I wanted to note is that it’s almost certainly not something that would rise to the level of lawsuit fodder. For there to be a legal issue that could lead to a harassment lawsuit, the behavior would need to be severe and pervasive; I don’t think this would qualify. (I’m not in any way trying to minimize the rest of your comment — just wanted to point this out, since I think people have fallen into assuming anything like this is a legal issue, when it’s often not.)

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N. February 6, 2013 at 10:33 am

Thank you for your response, I am sure you are right about it not likely being any kind of legal issue, I just wanted to make the point about the worst that could happen if his reaction was to jump up and scream “what a bitch!” if she asked him politely to give her more space. I did not see much of a possibility of people/the company siding against the OP if she handled it diplomatically. If the man did freak out (which he probably wouldn’t, I hope), I would count on HR at least investgating, if for no other reason than to find out if it was severe and pervasive to constitute a legal liability.

Doesn’t mean it couldn’t become unpleasant (and I would do well to remind myself that some people have a hard time conveying their wishes, especially if they imagine it would hurt someone’s feelings.) Fortunately the OP isn’t struggling with that problem in this case, and I truly hope she says something and that it turns out the guy just didn’t know, fixes it, and everybody’s life improves afterwards.

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Louise Massey February 5, 2013 at 8:43 am

I have a gripe. Why can’t we adopt a national “resume format?” I get so sick of recruiters and their “OCD” when it comes to resume formats. Recently, a recruiter changed my resume and used her company logo at the top. She removed my contact info and professional skills listing.

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Ask a Manager February 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

Because different formats will be more effective for different people. You don’t want to push people into only using one.

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Louise Massey February 5, 2013 at 8:54 am

No reply necessary on that note; of course an engineers’ resume would be somewhat different than a factory worker. DAH!

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Anonymous February 5, 2013 at 9:45 am

I wonder why noone ever said something when that guy always takes more and more seating space. Thats just rude of him.
I mean I would feel uncomforatable about saying something too, but at some point its necessary. Shortly before I would fall off that bench I would have just told him “Please dont take up so much space! I need some too.” Then he probably would have realized his mistake (or even when if he really did it deliberately he would fear being seen as rude by those other people there) and moved back some.
As for the smell, I probably would not say anything. I think I heared in a TV documentation that some people react stronger to the special kind of smell of some person when other people would not feel it that way(though that may be not that likely here as other people noticed it too). Still I would fear calling him out on this and then getting told its some illness this person is having, of which I didnt know. Thats why when that happened to me I just tried to ignore it, which was difficult.

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Fishie February 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

How would you feel about just quietly getting up and finding another seat? That sends a pretty clear message without making a scene or having a confrontation. If you had already heard about this guy, other people know he does it too, and they’ll know why you moved.

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Jamie February 5, 2013 at 10:12 am

But in the u-shaped bench she’s describing that’s a pretty awkward maneuver.

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Fishie February 5, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Probably, but that’s kind of the point. Like “I am just going to quietly get up and move to another, identical, spot on this bench to get away from you because you are misbehaving.” I’ve never done it in a meeting, but I have done it in public places. No scene, just got up and moved away from the offender. It’s probably not much more awkward than wiggling your way down a bench throughout an entire meeting!

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Anonymous February 6, 2013 at 12:59 am

This is exactly what forks were invented for. All diners should be at least one fork-length apart or suffer the consequences.

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