I'm having trouble with a colleague who has a habit of breathing heavily whenever I'm around. He does it in front of other men, but not other women, so I have no doubt he's doing it on purpose. It makes me really uncomfortable but I haven't been able to say anything – it's always a case of thinking of the perfect thing to say later when I'm talking to my friends about it. I just move away whenever he does it, but I feel like he still has the upper hand. How do I get him to back off?
Heavy breathing is beyond the scope of most job descriptions for the good reason that it's not generally an asset at work. If it's happening in your personal space, and the person doesn't need an ambulance, you might have a sexual harasser on your hands – someone for whom "no" is not a complete sentence.
Third millennial workplaces ask a lot of your average bear. Here, I want to talk about two moves all of us need to know how to make if we want to be Good Humans at Work. Both are hard, but for that matter so are performance reviews, workplace politics and living up to your potential – so let's pony up.
No. 1: Do not sexualise your professional relationships, particularly with colleagues you don't know very well. Mostly, it's men who have trouble with this. At this stage in a long conversation, we're seeing an increasing focus on the role of men in creating workplace cultures that their wives, sisters and daughters would feel safe and respected in. Oi, that's not how we (men) behave around here. Esteemed male readers: step up to this, if you aren't already. The women in your sphere, and the men, are depending on you.
No. 2: If you are uncomfortable, say so. Mostly, I'm afraid, it's women who have trouble with this.
Sigh. Theories abound about why, but if you're looking for a gripping read and a compelling account about the mismatch between male pursuit and female consent (why some men have trouble backing off, and why some women have trouble telling them to), have a look at security expert Gavin de Becker's classic deconstruction of stalkers, The Gift of Fear.
In a nutshell, de Becker argues that women work hard to deflect unwanted attention without angering men; and that women's fear of male anger is the cause of the "freeze" and denial response that many describe when having been on the wrong end of intrusive attention. ("Did that just happen? I'm sure it's nothing. Sure, come right on into my house/cubicle/personal space.")
Harder to grapple with is de Becker's contention that men are under relentless pressure from other men to be seen as tough (chick magnets, homophobic, invulnerable). This leaves some men unable to take a woman's "no" for an answer. Rejection puts their status on the line. Women have alert cultural memories about the fury of scorned men, and the monsters that might trail in the wake of a woman's "no", avid for revenge. My sense is that you are afraid of these; hence a letter to this column, rather than adroit words to your colleague.
Bearing all this in mind, men could stand to construe female friendliness as professional courtesy rather than a sign of interest, and to have a good hard look at the way they behave around female colleagues. You know, just in case. Fact is, she might be smiling because she's uncomfortable, not because she likes you; or she might just be an extrovert who does not deserve your censure for being pleasant. And women could really stand to take their defaults of politeness down a notch or two when feeling the "gift" of fear that lets all of us, women and men, know when our safety (physical or psychological) is on the line. It's fine not to get in a lift if there's already a man in there that you're getting a weird sense about from the minute the doors open, and it's fine to let someone know that they are standing in your personal space.
Having read de Becker's book, you may find it much easier to put aside your decorous silence and send some really clear signals about the behaviour that's being directed at you. While there's no guarantee this will work, the process of learning to say "no" is as good for a woman's soul as the vote and Amy Schumer. And the good news is that in the third millennium, women are more likely to be taken seriously when they insist on being treated as professional equals.
You can start off light, if you wish: "[laugh] That is/was so inappropriate!" This clues a well-meaning man into your discomfort without throwing all kinds of unwarranted disapproval at him. It also has a good chance of keeping the professional relationship on an even keel. Another good formulation I've heard is: "In what country is that even legal?"
If light and breezy doesn't work, you can move on to direct and even cold: "I want to be clear that [name the behaviour] is unwelcome and uncomfortable, and I will take further steps if it occurs again." Engage your organisation (HR, your supervisor, a trusted senior colleague) if you judge that they will be supportive. There's nothing like validation in helping you learn to trust your own experience, and there's nothing like an even-handed listener to avoid going down the road of blame and persecution. Dealing fluently with gender at work is baffling at times to both men and women.
If all of this seems impossible to you (and you will find many sympathetic readers on your side about this: naming harassment requires the fortitude of saints), practise with a trusted friend first so you can figure out the right words for you, get to know the feeling of empowerment you're after in your engagement with Mr Breather, and start working through the "freeze" you might feel the first time you try setting a clear boundary.
Freezing in the face of harassment can also suggest some trauma in your history, particularly if it involves your personal space. If that's the case, you could also seek the help of a good trauma therapist. All the best to you.