Q. Karen, I have very curly hair and am often asked by perfect strangers if they can touch my hair. I consider it rude and an invasion of my privacy. Could you please address the topic of people invading other's personal space? And would it be okay for me to move back or tell them no?
A. Asking to touch someone's hair is definitely an invasion of an individual's personal space or "proxemics" and should be avoided, regardless of someone's curiosity.
Every culture has an established social space that is usual for them. In the U.S. we keep people an arm's length away, literally. That's our comfort zone, and when people invade that comfort zone we can become uncomfortable. In fact, if people move closer than what we are comfortable with, we have a tendency to move away from the individual. It is natural and should be a social clue to the person invading your space.
Other cultures may have established distances that are closer than ours or farther away than what we see in the U.S. It's important to know what the social space is in other cultures to prevent an embarrassing situation. So do your homework if you are going to do business or travel abroad.
As far as telling people they can't touch your hair -- it is certainly appropriate and may enlighten some people who are insensitive to your personal comfort. Or you could try moving away from the person's reach.
Some other space invading activities that should be avoided are:
*Touching a pregnant woman's stomach.
*Touching babies, children or anyone else you don't know.
*Touching people in the workplace when speaking with them, especially those of the opposite sex.
*Men touching women, even a handshake, in certain cultures. Again, do your homework before traveling.
*Leave a seat or two between you and others in the movie theater, unless it is very crowded.
*Reading over someone's shoulder unless invited.
*Be sensitive to other's work space. Knock before entering another's office. If your work space is open, do ask to enter someone's space before charging in.
The exceptions to these rules would be based on your relationship with the individuals. Good friends and family members are a different issue, but do be sensitive to what may annoy even those with whom you are close.
Karen Hickman is a local certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy. To submit questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.