Thursday, December 20, 2012

Invasion of Personal Space

Has this ever happened to you? You are attending a professional conference, like the AAS meeting, and presenting a poster on your work. Someone comes to talk to you, but they stand too close. They might even touch your arm or shoulder as they talk. They have invaded your personal space! First, a few things to keep in mind:

Diagram of Edward T. Hall's personal reaction bubbles (1966), showing radius in feet

(1) We are not talking about groping. Groping is unwanted explicitly sexual touching. It is illegal and should be reported. You might want to check out this article.

(2) Keep in mind the distinction between “intentional” and “clueless” behavior with respect to personal space. Sometimes, the area in front of your poster is just not big enough. If your work is really interesting, it could attract a crowd. People might get too close in an effort to hear you or because someone behind them is inching forward.

(3) AAS meetings are not only professional occasions but, at times, social events. Acquaintances are made, flirtations happen, and sometimes long-term relationships ensue – my husband and I met at an AAS meeting. However, when discussing your poster you have the right to expect professional behavior. A professional colleague (someone who is not an old friend, a former office mate, a significant other, etc.) should limit their personal contact to a handshake.

(4) Personal space differs with culture, and astronomy is an international discipline. In the US, personal space is about an arm’s length. This space decreases in certain circumstances like for passengers on a crowded subway. According to some travel and cross-cultural web sites, Japanese and Indians have about the same sense of personal space as North Americans do, but Russians and Chinese typically stand a lot closer. Also see, e.g., the NY Times article by Stephanie Rosenbloom entitled, “In Certain Circles, Two Is a Crowd:”

So what if the behavior is not groping, it appears to be intentional, it is not someone you would like to get closer to, and you have been as internationally sensitive as you can. What do you do?

Assuming that you are not penned into a corner, take one step back and see what happens. If the person just steps forward, you might try wielding a telescoping metal pointer and gesture with it as you talk. Another strategy is to raise your voice; people sometimes react by backing up. You can also develop a buddy system with a friend or colleague who can intervene if someone gets too close too often.

You might say something like, “Excuse me, do you have to stand so close?” or “Excuse me, I just need a bit more space.” Try to be polite, at least at the beginning. If the subtle approach just isn’t working, this unwanted attention might be some type of misplaced flirtation. In this case, a more direct approach might be required. For example, “This is a professional meeting and you need to behave in a professional manner” or “Your suggestions are inappropriate (and offensive?).”

The behavior meets the level of harassment if it is repeated, unwanted attention. Someone asking you to dinner once is not likely to be harassment, but it can be if they ask repeatedly. Similarly, if someone stands too close for a few minutes as you explain your poster, it is not likely to be harassment, but it can be if the behavior is repeated. Suppose you have tried the above suggestions but the same individual continues to approach you inappropriately. What do you do then?

The AAS has a sexual harassment policy. It is important that everyone be familiar with the details. Reporting an incident to the Executive Officer (Kevin Marvel) or an AAS council member is the first step. If you don’t know them or don’t feel comfortable approaching them, please seek out any CSWA member. The solution could be as simple as an appropriate AAS official having a quiet word with the offender, but it could also be more complex. The procedure is described here.

CSWA is trying to determine the extent of this unprofessional behavior, especially at AAS meetings. If something like this has happened to you, would you be willing to leave a comment? It can certainly be posted anonymously. We are also looking for good advice. If you have any suggestions, please comment on that as well.


Unknown said...

Photon has left a new comment on your post "Invasion of Personal Space":

This is a great article with concrete steps to take if you feel that someone at a conference is acting inappropriately:'s important to tell someone--conference officer, colleague--so that you can get support from the conference organizers if necessary.

Anonymous said...

I don't specifically remember presenting AAS posters and having this happen (or at least am so accustomed to taking a step back that it wouldn't register), but I have had a faculty member who has a reputation for doing such things come talk to me (a grad) and put his hand on my hip during our conversation... He's American, so that can't be ascribed to cultural differences, though I did have a Chinese physics professor for a lab as an undergrad who always felt the need to touch my shoulder as we were talking (I was the only female in that class), and was never sure how to respond to that.

Anonymous said...

The international aspect can be significant. As a (straight, US) male, I had in one case to be very careful to take this into account, when I was discussing a scientific issue with a (female, attractive, and as it later turned out, married) postdoc from an Eastern European country. She was standing so close that in my culture it would have been unequivocally flirtatious; I avoided that interpretation only by reference to older men from her culture who had approached me in times past to the same very close distance during scientific discussions.