Pat on the Back

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am at our local hardware store on Vermont Avenue in L.A. where I've recently been spending a lot of time and money on our fixer-upper, when I see one of the store's employees give another one a pat on the back. It makes me smile because it's something I don't see too often in the workplace these days: generous, a gesture of appreciation -- for what, exactly, I cannot tell. A favor returned? Encouragement? A conflict resolved? Good news? A joke? All I can tell for sure is that it's a connection between two people who, in that instant, are enjoying their scene.

We earn our money by learning from the Past and by being correct more often than not about the Future. But we do our living in the Now, and nothing says Now like a pat on the back.

And yet, there's a problem with this, at least where the workplace is concerned. Touching is a vital element of communication, but between the computer culture and the corporate playbook, it is being systematically eliminated from the game.

To get the complete picture, I phone Martin Ett, an HR consultant with ObsessiCom Outsourcing Services, and ask him to interpret a pat on the back like the one I witnessed in the hardware store.

"It depends," says Ett.


"A lot. Was it a display of affection? If so, was it sexual in nature? What was the duration of the gesture? We recommend a three-second limit on casual contact, including handshakes, conversational touching, hair or clothing adjustments, and lint-plucking. Back-patting falls under the three-second rule.

"There's also the nature of the contact itself to consider," Ett went on. "Was there rubbing involved or was the contact static? Was it hand contact only, or was it of a hugging nature so that bodies were touching? This is an important distinction, because hugs are becoming increasingly problematic in the workplace. Many employers prohibit what we call 'full frontal clutching' while still allowing what we call 'casual side-to-side linkage.' We're seeing strong anti-clutching trends across the corporate landscape.

"I'd want to talk to each of the employees separately," Ett continues, "to determine both intention and interpretation, an 'I-to-I Analysis,' we call it."

"Eye-to-Eye? I ask. Misinterpreting. "Is that like a 360?"

"You mean a 720? Uh, no. It means was there alignment between the patter's Intention and the pattee's Interpretation of the incident?


I get where this is going but there's no stopping him now. I put the phone on speaker and tend to my Farmville on Facebook as Ett continues: "Did the pat make the pattee defensive or uncomfortable, or imply some kind of future obligation? Also, what was the proximity of the parties? Was one of the parties backed into a corner, or was there space for the pattee to avoid the pat if it was unwelcome or unwarranted?"

"It happened in the hose aisle," I say. "It's cramped in that store. Space is tight."

"Hose aisle," repeats Ett, gravely. "That could be an issue. Context is key. I'd need to know more about what exactly goes on in the hose aisle. Is one of the parties the hose manager, or is that aisle considered neutral space? Was there actual hose involved? Because that's a whole new kettle of worms...

Kettle of worms? When did a pat on the back turn into a scene from a Wes Craven movie?

"Also what, specifically, was 'the back' being patted? I'd want to know that. Was it in the region of the upper, or Cervical, vertebrae? If it was on the upper back it was probably okay, assuming of course, it didn't last for longer than three seconds and no rubbing was involved. Middle, or Thoracic vertebrae, are a gray area, especially numbers T-One through T-Four. You find HR people very divided about this, and there are no clear guidelines, so my advice is to steer clear of the Thoracic region entirely, just to be safe. The lower, or Lumbar region, is a definite no-no. And a pat on the Sacrum will get you a visit from Security, no question.

"Was one of the employees the other one's superior?" continues Ett. "If so, the gesture could be taken as intimidation or harassment. Was the patting public or did it happen in private? Was this an isolated incident, or was it part of a pattern?"

"I don't know," I say, feeling a bit harassed myself now, for even bringing it up. "They just seemed like a couple of guys enjoying a moment."

"Couple of guys, eh? We're seeing a big increase in same-sex sexual harassment these days." Ett says it with the ominous satisfaction of an exterminator describing a cockroach invasion in the building where you live.

"What about giving myself a pat on the back?" I ask. "Do you have a rule against that?"

"Are you making fun of me?" Ett replies. "If you are, you're barking down the wrong well, buddy. There are rules about that."

Next time I see them, I'll warn the guys over at the hardware store they're skating on some very thin skin.

The problem with rules of the game like those cited by (the fictional) Martin Ett is that they define workplace interactions in the context of the Past or the Future while minimizing the impact of the Now. Because of this they tend to suppress rather than expand our ability to communicate in a productive, meaningful way.

In this kind of sanitized environment, we may be making our money and limiting our liability, but it has very little to do with how we're living our lives.