Saying ‘Yes’ and ‘No’
“Are you accepting hugs?” I asked my friend, Jason, at the ski hill just before he opened his arms to welcome me into his space. I had been running into people I hadn’t seen in over nine months my first day back at the slopes, and had enjoyed the variety of connection opportunities.
After sharing a lovely hug, I turned to a nearby acquaintance of ours. He was sitting distant to everyone, drinking a beer, and before I could even open my mouth to say hello, he looked at me sternly, held up his hands, and crossed his fingers towards my face.
What the hell? I thought, immediately offended. I’m sure he heard and saw me ask for permission before entering Jason’s space. I wasn’t going to bombard him with a hug.
“Hey there,” I said to him. He’s frightened I’m sure, and probably didn’t mean ill wishes towards me. He just stared at me, nodded his head, and turned back to his beer.
The fact he wants space doesn’t bother me, I thought. It was the look combined with the gesture, as if he was warding off evil. I know in Japan it is the gesture to ask for a check, but here I take it as a rude “get away from me.”
Saying ‘Yes’ While Asking For Space
There have been various versions of this scenario throughout the pandemic; although this was the most off-putting and rude way someone has asked for space, I can’t help but remember that many of us have not learned how to say ‘yes’ to a person while maintaining distance. In other words, how to acknowledge another person’s presence while simply and honestly stating one’s boundaries.
I have seen people place hands together in a gentle ‘namaste’ as a greeting. Others simply state they are maintaining physical distance. I have seen people wave or step back with a gentle verbal reminder that they would like some space. To me, these seem like gentle ways to address the desire for connection (a yes to the person) while asking for distance.
It’s Different with Strangers–Or Can Be
With strangers I have had the experience of people shrinking away in fear if I walk too close on a hiking trail; others just step off the trail and wait for me to pass-or vice versa. I have seen people get out of line at the grocery store if someone is too close, while others wait (patiently) for an isle to be vacant before entering themselves. There is not necessarily a need to say ‘yes’ to a stranger, but one can choose the level of grace and fear that accompanies non-verbal communication.
Saying ‘Yes’ as A Skill
Saying ‘yes’ to a person and ‘no’ to touch is a communication skill that was important way before this pandemic. Have you ever had to redirect a child who wants to be held while you are occupied? Perhaps you have said something like, “Not now, honey, can you wait until after dinner?” Or, “I know you want to be on my lap right now, but I have to finish folding this laundry.”
Redirecting and saying ‘yes’ to a person goes beyond physical contact as well. Has your partner been focused on a project while you are trying to ask a question and said, “Can you wait a minute to talk about this until I’m done so I can give you my full attention?” Or, “I’ll help you as soon as I’m finished with this?”
I’m sure you’ve acknowledged someone’s presence or need for attention or an answer while also asking for a pause, for a moment or two until the timing is better.
This is saying ‘yes’ to a person and ‘no’ to the interruption. It is saying in a subtle way, “Hey, I hear you and I want to respond, but if you can wait a bit, I can engage in a manner that is more authentic, more thoughtful, more connected.”
We All Make Mistakes in Communication
Do we make mistakes consciously and subconsciously with communication verbally and non-verbally? Of course. Can each of us take offense to something that is not meant to be offensive? Absolutely. I did.
My Question For You
How can you choose to state your boundaries more clearly with those you interact with? When I teach classes about healthy touch and communication, we often discuss offering a series of options to another that suit your own boundaries. “Would you like…a high-five? Fist-bump? Handshake? Hug?”
Giving a few options within your own comfort level can be a helpful guide to the other whilst showing respect for their own boundaries. Or, clearly stating before any error is made, “I would love to give you a hug/ handshake, but I am choosing to maintain distancing at the moment. But it is lovely to see you.” Clear communication not only takes the awkwardness out of a situation, but shows a level of caring and respect.
Comfort Levels Change Around Touch
Permissions can also change day-by-day. A person who wants a hug on Monday may feel a bit sensitive on Friday, or may be starting to distance before they visit an elderly relative. It doesn’t hurt to ask. You can even make it playful! Find a few phrases that fit your boundaries and personality for the next time you run into someone you know. And remember, if someone says ‘no,’ don’t take it personally. Even if they come across rude or angry. After all, we are all doing the best we can at the moment; that too, needs to be respected.