Vigilance, Shelley Klingerman, takes a serious tone to setting boundaries whether on travel or in the professional workplace:

“Generally, women are kind and approachable. However, there are certainly situations where it’s better not to engage in a conversation or completely avoid someone. And there are situations where you might just have to be a bitch. Don’t feel bad or guilty about it…Similarly, if you find yourself in a conversation or situation that you are growing uncomfortable with, don’t be afraid to be direct and just abruptly end the conversation…Unfortunately, some men (and a few women) don’t understand boundaries, or, they completely understand boundaries but choose to push them.”

In Steel Toes and Stilettos, Shannon Karels and I share so many stories during our 3-year journey together. Our goal was to err on the side of humor and not focus too much on the darker side of being female in a male-dominated industry. Clearly, we each experienced some very awkward and inappropriate situations in the workplace and during business travel through the years. If they had to occur (which clearly, they didn’t), most of those were much earlier career days, and not during this stint of our time together. This book is not about the #metoo movement, but it is important to help equip the next generation of females entering the male-dominated workforce with an awareness that said incidents can occur. Being aware and prepared can help one avoid such episodes or even longer-term trends as this lighthearted description from our book describes:

“However, there were definitely some unique situations that a female senior manager had to learn to handle. There were not many of us around, so this was navigating new territory. One of these said items was the whole greeting situation. I am not sure where or when it happened, but somewhere along the way, many peers on my journey would hug or kiss me on the cheek as a greeting. It was all innocent enough, and I am a hugger, but I did not know who was in for the handshake versus who was in for the hug. My male counterparts never had to deal with such awkward situations, such as when you reach your hand out to shake another’s hands, and they come in for a hug. You have to keep track of who is on the handshake versus the hug list. You also need to keep a list of all the countries you will visit for the one, two, or three cheek kiss customs; and whether you need to start on the left or the right cheek, lest an awkward head bump or inadvertent lip meeting should occur. It’s a lot of pressure to maneuver your arrival and departure at every meeting correctly. You want to be respected as a businessperson, but you don’t want to appear to be aloof or stuck up, or unfriendly.  At least I never did.”

It is a lot easier when you are traveling in and among strangers to convince yourself that such behavior is ok when you feel uncomfortable. However, in the workplace, the reality is that it is hard for many females to abruptly end conversations when boundaries are being tested, and perhaps even crossed.

My advice is to start with a friendly statement such as, “Maybe you misunderstood my intentions about our friendship.” Or, “I really appreciate our camaraderie as peers, but we need to make sure we keep it professional.” That should take care of most innocent blunders. However, you are well within your right to be much more direct if needed. And, of course, seek the counsel of your boss or human resources if assistance is needed.

Boundary conditions exist in all aspects of life. Set them and respect those of others.