Protecting Your Personal Space
What to Do If...
An acquaintance greets you with an unwelcome bear hug or a slobbery kiss: Head off advances with your body language. “You should put out your hand long before the person gets to you, so he knows you prefer to only shake hands,” says Hector Garcia, a bodyguard with Valle Security International. Or “take a cue from the way people deal with uncomfortable closeness on subways and buses,” says Robert Sommer, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis and the author of Personal Space: They treat other passengers like trees. “Go rigid, avoid eye contact, look away, and act busy,” he says. If it’s too late to stop an affection attack, use humor to make your feelings known. “Draw back in mock horror and say, ‘You know, I’ve given up kissing temporarily, at least until after I’ve had my flu shot,’” says Letitia Baldrige, author of New Manners for New Times ($40, amazon.com). “You are obviously joking, but he’ll get the message.”
Most important, express yourself early on, advises Ceri Marsh, coauthor of The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Grace Under Pressure: Extreme Etiquette for the Stickiest, Trickiest, Most Outrageous Situations of Your Life ($15, amazon.com). “It’s tough to break habits that have already been established,” says Marsh. “Once you’ve agreed, even tacitly, to the kiss-kiss hello, it’s very tricky to move to the handshake.” Her suggestion: “Try standing slightly farther away from this person when you greet him next,” and angle your body so you’re not meeting him head-on.
An office mate is constantly in your cubicle, reading over your shoulder, or picking up papers from your desk: You’re there to work; that’s the only excuse you need. And “while offices aren’t exactly homes, they should be treated with the same kind of respect,” says Lois Frankel, an executive coach and the author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office ($15, amazon.com). “You wouldn’t think of going into someone’s home uninvited, picking up their mail, and reading it,” says Frankel. “And the same courtesy should be extended in the workplace.” She suggests posting a lighthearted sign to indicate when people are welcome to come in or to designate desk items as off-limits. “Something to the effect of ‘Unless you plan on cleaning this desk, don’t pick anything up!’ ” says Frankel. “If the culprits still don’t get it, try saying, ‘Can I help you?’ or ‘Those papers are private.’ ”
Of course, in a cubicle, you’re a sitting duck. Sommer suggests personalizing your work area, whether it’s with a few family photographs or a distinctive plant. Establishing it as your private space can subtly reinforce boundaries and help fend off overfriendly office mates.
What to Do If...
You catch a dinner guest poking through your bedroom or perusing your medicine cabinet: Even the nosiest person will be embarrassed to be caught in the act, says Marsh. You can let the person save face by saying, “I’m sorry. You must need something. Can I help you?” Then the guest has an easy out―he can respond that he was looking for an aspirin or some other common item. As he or she follows you to find the item, you might gently close the door behind you.
A neighbor pops by unannounced: Play it straight. “Say, ‘I’m sorry―this isn't a good time, but thanks for thinking of me,’ without inviting the neighbor into the house,” says Jane Adams, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Boundary Issues ($25, amazon.com). You could also plainly admit that you prefer scheduled coffee dates to impromptu visits. If you work from home, you have a built-in excuse for turning away any company: “Listen, Mary, I have this deadline, and I have to work on it. Maybe we can get together later next week.” Your neighbor doesn’t need to know what is occupying your time (if you’re simply relaxing on the couch, then so be it). She only needs to know that you are not available.
The cleaner, the dog walker, or the sitter moves things around in areas of the house he or she has no business being in: “Absolutely address the situation,” says Debra Johnson, the training manager for Merry Maids, a national home-cleaning service. After all, you’re paying for the job, and communication is the key to getting what you want. Guy Maddalone, the CEO and founder of GTM Household Employment Experts and the author of How to Hire and Retain Your Household Help, says, “Whether it’s a nanny, a dog walker, or a house cleaner, that person wants to be successful in their role, so you need to explain the policies in the beginning to set them up for success.” Schedule an orientation meeting with the employee at the start and explain your rules, including the places and things that are off-limits. You might even take this a step further by creating your own employee handbook. That way, you’ll both have a clear, tangible reference to consult in the future.
What to Do If...
Your spouse regularly opens the bathroom door and saunters in when you're going about your business: “Simply close the door with a ‘Let’s maintain the mystery, shall we, darling?’ ” says Marsh. Indeed, whether you are showering, are in mud-pack mode, or just want a few minutes to yourself, “shutting the door will make a clear statement and may mean you don’t even have to say anything,” agrees Peter Post, author of Essential Manners for Couples ($22, amazon.com).
But what if it’s a girlfriend who enjoys spending quality time in the bathroom, chatting between stalls or tagging along with you on trips to a teensy ladies’ room? You risk bruising her feelings if you flat-out ignore her. So if you must say something, again, try a joke. Molly Erdman, a comedian with the Second City troupe in Chicago, suggests “I require full concentration for the task at hand.” Your friend will recognize that sometimes two is a crowd.
Your spouse and kids leave their things (toys! socks!) in your space: Think of the old dorm-room dirty-dishes trick: Plonking the offending plates on your roommate’s bed prompted a quick change in those housework-avoiding habits. The same technique can be used at home today―setting the sweat sock you found in your lingerie drawer back on top of your husband’s dresser, or removing your children’s colony of Transformers from under your desk and resettling it elsewhere. The key, says Sommer, is to make it obvious that you have deliberately moved the items from a place where they didn’t belong and weren’t welcome.
“Prevent recurring clutter creep by making a clear and specific place for everything―a bowl for house keys, a separate bureau for your husband, a toy chest for the children―and label these areas if necessary,” suggests Barry Izsak, the president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Ultimately, though, says Erdman, it’s best to maintain some perspective. “While I don’t prefer that my husband keep his socks in my drawer,” she says, “I can calmly put them back where they belong knowing it would be much worse if he stashed them in the silverware drawer.”
What to Do If...
A dinner companion casually eats from your plate uninvited: Head her off at the pass. Before you dig in, “an elegant approach is to place a small sample of your dish on your bread plate and pass it to your dinner companion,” says Markus Draxler, the maître d’hôtel at the acclaimed French restaurant Daniel, in New York City. He also suggests asking your waiter to have a portion split for you in the kitchen before the meal is served.
If the portions are small, however, or you don’t feel like sharing even one bite, a comment like “I’m so starved―I can’t wait to eat every single thing on my plate!” can discourage a scavenger from focusing her crosshairs on your pork tenderloin. And when the waiter takes your dessert order and asks how many forks you’d like, saying “One, please” will give your dining companions the signal to keep their tines in their own tiramisus.
You are on a group vacation and crave some alone time: Whether you’re traveling with friends or in a tour group, sometimes you need a vacation from your traveling companions. “I’ve had this happen on numerous occasions and find that it’s best to be honest,” says Stacy Small, a Florida-based luxury-travel consultant and the president of Elite Travel by Stacy. Prearrange a few activities just for you, like a spa treatment or a golf lesson, and simply explain to the others that you set up some appointments ahead of time. Or, suggests Erdman, pick an activity obscure enough to turn off the rest of the group (“Hey, I’m going to the sawdust museum tomorrow! Who’s with me?”) and then savor your freedom once the group has set off in search of more traditional sights.
Another strategy is to be the earliest riser and get a start on the day before your friends are even out of bed. Or, says Kim Izzo, coauthor of The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Grace Under Pressure, let the group members make their plans for the day, then politely bow out before they depart with “I’m going to hang alone by the pool today.” “Your friends may be glad you’ve introduced the concept of spending some alone time and take advantage of it themselves,” Izzo says.
What to Do If...
A perfect stranger pats your pregnant belly in public: “Some expectant moms don’t mind the touching―and, in fact, some enjoy it,” says Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting ($15, amazon.com). “But if it does rub you the wrong way, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t speak up. A playful ‘No touching, please―the baby’s sleeping!’ can discourage those uninvited advances. Or make your statement without saying a word: Cross your arms protectively over your belly, or even try rubbing the person right back. Patting someone’s potbelly might make him think twice before reaching for yours again.” For a subtler tactic, Adams suggests, “just move away from the person, or take their hand and gently deposit it somewhere else.” That should make it clear that your stomach, however tempting it may be to touch, is not up for grabs.
The cruise-ship couple you just met wants to hang out from breakfast until bedtime: There are two ways to rid yourself of human barnacles. Option A―the polite ditch. “One approach would be to tell the couple, ‘We devote so much time at home to our friends and family, so one of the things we love most about a cruise is that it gives us the chance to get away from everyone and spend some quiet time alone, just the two of us,’” says Michael Thomas, the director of entertainment and programs for Celebrity Cruises.
Option B? Hide! “Book yourselves a romantic dinner for two at the intimate, reservations-only restaurant that most ships have,” suggests Heidi Sarna, a coauthor of Cruise Vacations for Dummies. Better still, she says, “order room service and hunker down on your cabin balcony, the most private of spaces on a cruise ship.”