Do codes of conduct at conferences have a chilling effect on ordinary social interaction?
In the discussions about sexual harassment and codes of conduct at atheist and skeptical conferences, there’s been a tendency for the conversations to wander off into a micro-analysis of whether people would have to get explicit verbal consent for handshakes and hugs. The codes requiring people to get consent before touching other people are often being met with a snarky, disbelieving attitude, along the lines of, “You want me to ask permission for a handshake?” or “We have to have a rulebook now on how to hug each other?”
I was at the Secular Student Alliance national conference last weekend. A code of conduct was in place, one that was well-publicized. And the social interaction at the conference was anything but chilly. It was warm, friendly, collegial, affectionate, enthusiastic, and inspired. And yes, there was plenty of both handshaking and hugging going on throughout the weekend. (I assume there was plenty of hooking up going on as well, but I don’t know that for certain.)
It’s hard not to see the cries of “How are we supposed to hug or shake hands now?” as anything but an attempt to derail a conversation about a serious problem into squabbling about minutiae. But in case there are people who are sincerely confused by this handshaking/ hugging issue, I’m going to share my observations: both from the conference, and just from, you know, life.
Here’s how it works.
When you want to shake someone’s hand, you don’t reach out and grab their hand without getting their consent. You extend your own hand, in a gesture that indicates an invitation to shake yours, which they can accept or not. If they say, “Sorry, but I don’t shake hands,” or, “I have arthritis, I can’t shake hands,” or something along those lines… it’s slightly awkward, but it’s no worse than that.
If you do shake people’s hands by reaching out and grabbing their hand… you’re doing it wrong.
Now, to hugs.
See above. It’s almost exactly the same.
When you want to hug someone, you don’t reach out and grab them without warning and without getting their consent. You open your arms, in a gesture that indicates an invitation to hug you, which they can accept or not. If they say, “Sorry, but I don’t want to hug you,” or “I’m not comfortable hugging strangers,” or something along those lines… it’s slightly awkward, but it’s no worse than that.
If you do hug people by reaching out and grabbing them without warning… you’re doing it wrong.
Hugs are somewhat more intimate than handshakes. And in general, the more intimate the contact, the more important it is to get explicit verbal consent. So if you’re not certain — by all means, ask in words. Say, “May I hug you?” or, “Would you like a hug?” Some people did that at the SSA conference — and it was fine. Yes, it’s slightly awkward. But it also indicates respect for the other person’s autonomy and physical boundaries, which more than counteracts any awkwardness. And — in the context of the recent firestorm over sexual harassment and codes of conduct at conferences — it indicates that you’ve been paying attention, and that you care about the issue of sexual harassment and take it seriously.
There are sometimes miscommunications. At one point at the SSA conference, someone opened their arms to hug me, right at the moment I was extending my hand to shake theirs. Then we switched: I opened my arms to hug them, and they extended their hand to shake mine. You know what we did? We laughed about it. I said, “Handshake or hug?” We hugged. And it was fine. It was funny. It was no more awkward than two people trying to pass each other in a hall, and both stepping to the same side.
But even with the occasional missteps, the principle is clear. You make a gesture, indicating that you would like a certain type of friendly physical contact. Your gesture is either accepted or not. If you’re following these guidelines, then you’re getting consent, and you’re well within the guidelines of the codes of conduct.
Codes of conduct are not in place to interfere with ordinary social interaction. And they don’t. They are in place to protect people from invasive behavior. Invasive behavior is a real problem at conferences. And some of us would like to talk about that problem, without being met with snide trivializations of it, or being derailed into a petty micro-analysis of tangential issues. Thank you.