Navigating social nuances with patients and colleagues

While human contact is natural and banter is commonplace, be mindful of how words and actions are received by those with different perceptions.

A gentleman I vaguely recognized approached me at the reception following a recent family funeral. He was the domestic partner of a relative, and though I knew we’d met before, I couldn’t remember much about him. When he asked if he could speak with me privately I said yes, thinking he had an expression of sympathy or a memory to share.

What came out his mouth next astonished me. “I think I may have touched you inappropriately when we said hello before the funeral, and I want to apologize so I don’t hear from your lawyer,” he uttered.

Whoa! I remembered that he’d given me a quick hug when he arrived at the funeral home. It was a caring and appropriate gesture, and I didn’t think anything of it.

But clearly he did. Red-faced, he went on to say that he thought his hand had slipped during the hug and he was afraid he’d touched my rear end. I’m sure he didn’t. Even if he did, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that it was intentional. We were, after all, in a crowded funeral home with lots of jostling going on.

This experience epitomized for me how our society has become increasingly en garde about physical and verbal displays of support. For years I’ve been hearing from clients who are wary of giving a compliment, offering advice, or sharing a touch at work for fear of retribution. And recent instances of on-the-job harassment have made things worse. The tension is palpable.

Medicine is a tactile profession. But can you give a coworker a hug anymore? Is it OK to place your hand on a patient other than during an examination? Do you take a risk by complimenting a colleague? And what do you do if you’re on the receiving end of an accolade or embrace?

Here are five guidelines to help you navigate the nuances of our ever-evolving social standards.

1. Talk before you touch.

Not everyone is comfortable with a pat, stroke, or hug, so let your words lead the way before you reach out and touch someone. If you feel compelled to lay a caring hand on someone, especially during a time of heightened emotion, ask for permission. A simple question like, “Is it OK if I give you a hug?” or, “Would it help if I hold your hand?” allows the potential recipient to guide the intimacy level of the exchange.

2. Shake on it.

A handshake is the most commonly accepted form of contact in North American culture, so make that your first point of connection. When doing so, ensure your handshake is solid and sincere. Whether you’re congratulating someone, sharing a moment of sorrow, or formalizing an agreement, you’ll enhance the meaning of the moment by also making eye contact and giving the other person your full attention.

3. Focus on the work, not the wardrobe.

Most of us don’t think twice about being complimented on our style, in fact we’re flattered. But for many people, any comment along that line is out of bounds, especially from a colleague. That’s why it’s wise to limit your observations to someone’s work rather than their wardrobe. A statement like, “Your attention to detail is an asset,” is appropriate. “That outfit highlights your assets,” is not.

4. Understand the difference between “you” and “I.”

Not every piece of feedback we share is a compliment. Sometimes we need to extend an apology. Here’s a simple rule of thumb for both: When delivering a compliment, always begin with the word “you,” as in, “You did a great job,” or, “You performed that procedure with incredible finesse.” On the other hand, when an apology is in order, begin with the word “I,” such as: “I didn’t call when I said I would, and I’m sorry,” or, “I could have handled that situation with more tact. I apologize.”

5. Respond with grace.

Minimizing someone’s praise or apology dismisses the person who shared it. The most gracious response is to simply say thank you. If you feel the need to add more to that statement, keep it simple with an additional phrase like, “I appreciate your kindness,” or, “I value your feedback,” or, “I accept your apology.” If, on the other hand, you’re upset about what you’ve heard, it’s best to buy yourself some time before responding. You can do that by saying, “I need some time to think about your comment. Can we please discuss this later?”

There’s a time and a place for everything. While human contact is natural and banter is commonplace, we must be mindful of how our words and actions are received by those with different perceptions. You can reduce your chances of being misunderstood by approaching all you do with a foundation of respect.

In the end, I appreciated the apology that gentleman offered after the funeral. Well, except for the lawyer part, but I let that go.

Sue Jacquesis a professionalism expert, keynote speaker, consultant, and author who specializes in medical and corporate civility. A veteran forensic medicolegal death investigator, Jacques helps people and practices prosper through professionalism.

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