We all know someone who doesn’t respect personal boundaries, don’t we?
It could be a coworker who insists upon looming over your desk while you’re trying to work, not getting the hint when you say repeatedly that you have a pressing deadline.
It could be a relative who always taps your arm while talking to you even though you’ve made it clear that you hate it when you’re touched like that.
It could even be a partner who talks to you while you’re trying to work, despite being asked again and again to respect your space and solitude during that time.
While shrieking at the top of your lungs and throwing shoes at these people might be incredibly cathartic and will indeed make enough of an impact to curb another’s crappy behavior, it’s often best to err on the side of diplomacy and find other means of protecting your personal space. This is especially relevant if said shoe-throwing might result in your getting fired.
Below are a few ways that you can protect your space without horrifying the people around you.
Be Polite, But Honest
Use your words.
There’s remarkable power in being direct and honest about a situation or personal preference, as it leaves no “wiggle room” for misinterpretation. You’ve made your stance clear, you know what you like (or do not like), and it’s up to the other person to adhere to what you’ve established.
Let’s say that you have an aunt who insists upon nudging and slapping your arm or thigh during a conversation to emphasize various points, and you absolutely hate that. With a seething passion.
Look her in the eye and let her know that you really don’t like it when she does that. You can even take her hand in yours when she does it again, and repeat the process of making (and holding) eye contact, with the request (demand) that she stop.
She may respond with, “Well, that’s just how I am,” at which point your response can be: “And this is how I am. Please respect that.”
She might get a bit snarky about it, but you’ve asked politely, and now it’s on her to respect your wishes. Some people can get really defensive when asked to behave differently than they generally do, but those who truly care about you will put in the effort to make you feel more comfortable.
Should words not carry enough weight…
Maintain Physical Distance
Let’s say that darling aunt really doesn’t take the hint, or just chooses to ignore what you’ve said about your personal preferences regarding being thwapped while spoken to. (Even worse, if she gets spiteful about you having dared to speak up about such things to make her feel awkward, and goes out of her way to tap/smack you on purpose.)
In situations like these, you can create a physical barrier between the two of you so that she’s physically incapable of touching you.
Talk to her from across a table so you’re out of reach, or hold a beverage in the hand closest to her so if she smacks you, she’ll get splashed. Her own sense of self-preservation in terms of not wanting to get whatever you’re drinking all over her will likely win out over courtesy toward you.
You may find yourself in a position where she might follow you around to the other side of the table because you’re much too far away, honey. Eek. Some people do things like this because they enjoy pushing others’ buttons to try to make them uncomfortable, which is an extraordinarily douche-y thing to do.
If she does this, you can keep orbiting the table to get away from her.
She may call you out on that, at which point you remind her that she has kept hitting your arm despite your requests for her to stop. Between the repeated reminders and the fact that you are literally running away from her, she might get it.
Stay Calm, And Be Firm
If the problem has to do with the coworker who stands over your desk while you’re trying to work, and he’s just not taking the hint, you may have to be a bit more assertive. Stand up from your desk, look him in the eye, and tell him very clearly that you have a pressing deadline, and you need to focus.
Bringing an emotional element into it like commenting on how you have a strong work ethic and sense of integrity, and don’t want to let the team down by missing the deadline might snap him into a greater sense of awareness.
Most people who disrespect others’ boundaries don’t do so out of a sense of malice, but rather that they’re so self-involved that it really doesn’t occur to them that there are rippled repercussions to their actions.
If he’s prattling about a specific subject, you can tell him that you’d like to discuss said subject later, but right now, you need to dedicate all your attention to your work.
Naming the topic he’s talking about shows him that you’re listening actively, and it validates the fact that yes, you’re interested in talking to him and not just brushing him off.
He’ll most likely react in a more positive manner if he doesn’t feel rejected: he’ll take this as just a raincheck, and will likely respect the fact that you’ve set this professional boundary.
Using humor can be a good way to bridge the gap between maintaining your comfort level and not upsetting other people, as it can diffuse a lot of tension.
In the case of your aunt, you can clutch your arm and WAIL when she smacks you, or drop to the ground as though mortally wounded. She’ll then brush you off as being a big baby, everyone will laugh at the situation, you’ll come across as less of a jerk, and she won’t feel quite as put out by being reprimanded for undesirable behavior.
In the case involving your coworker, shooting elastic bands or crumpled-up pieces of paper at him until he runs away, while donning a massive, mischievous grin can put the point across quite well.
You might get a slight admonishment by your superiors at work, but they’re more likely to see the humor in it and understand your actions completely. That guy just won’t shut up, right? Right.
Make Firm Obstacles To Counteract Their Disrespect
This one is a bit more proactive, and is best used when situations escalate, or if the person whose behavior you’re trying to curb really doesn’t get it at all.
It’s unfortunate if you get to the point where you have to put some of these tactics into play, but the fact of the matter is that most people will not change unless they’re forced to do so, and desperate situations often call for desperate measures.
If you have a live-in partner who isn’t respecting your time alone, lock the door to the room you’re in and tack a big sign to the door, demanding that you be left alone unless someone is dying.
Should they interrupt you anyway, regardless of the very clear obstacles you have placed in their path, you are utterly within your rights to reprimand them.
If a housemate insists upon eating your food or borrowing your clothes despite being asked time and time again to leave your stuff alone, invest in small lock boxes.
If they ask why your stuff is locked away, you can make mention of the fact that you’ve asked them time and time again to respect your space and your belongings and they haven’t done so.
If they get offended, make it very clear that their behavior has pushed you to this point; that you’re not happy to be there either, but there are consequences to actions.
Ultimately, Offense Is Taken, Not Given
Should you find that none of the methods above are really solving the problem you’re facing, then it’s absolutely okay to reclaim your space by any and all means necessary. Remember that protecting your personal space takes precedence over catering to anyone else’s personal preferences.
If the people in your life are getting offended because you’re standing up for the need to protect your space, then you might wish to re-evaluate the roles that they’re playing in your life.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.