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Want to avoid being seen as sexual harasser? Take this nun’s advice.

Matt Lauer put his hand on Katie Couric’s knee when she was leaving as co-host of NBC “Today.” Before you put your hand on a co-worker’s knee, ask yourself this: Would you put your hand on the knee of a respected aunt?
Matt Lauer put his hand on Katie Couric’s knee when she was leaving as co-host of NBC “Today.” Before you put your hand on a co-worker’s knee, ask yourself this: Would you put your hand on the knee of a respected aunt? AP

These are tough times for the good guys. All those honest and respectful men are having their own reaction to the sexual harassment scandals that have come to light. They are remembering interactions at work and doing what we wish the Harvey Weinsteins and Matt Lauers of the world had done – they are worrying.

They worry someone might have been offended or worse, felt harassed by something they unintentionally said or did. You can almost tell the good guys from the creeps by this worry. Good guys are conscientious. They don’t want to hurt or offend women. The creeps think women enjoy their creepiness and aren’t worried at all.

The good guys are thinking of all the women they hugged at office holiday parties, all the compliments they have given and anything else that could be misconstrued. This message is for those men, the ones who aren’t secretly called Lester the Molester or Tommy McToucherson by the ladies in the office.

Consider this a “Good Guys’ Guide to Not Being a Creepy Lecherous Harasser.”

A good overall rule to avoid sexually harassing someone is to first call to mind a favorite aunt, someone you love and respect. Once you have Aunt Mathilda firmly affixed in your brain, ask yourself, “Would I do or say this to Aunt Mathilda?” If the answer is “yes,” it probably isn’t sexual harassment.

Let’s examine hugging: We are in the South, and Southerners like to hug. Many meetings begin with hugs instead of handshakes. You would hug Aunt Mathilda, right? So, you think, nothing could be wrong with a nice hug. Actually, hugs may be the most popular gateway to full-on sexual harassment. If you want to hug, please consider some advice from Sister Allison.

Sister Allison was a nun, my high school’s librarian and a chaperone at all of our dances. When she saw two bodies looking as though they were becoming one on the dance floor, she would put her arms between the two students, raise her voice over Robert Plant singing “Stairway to Heaven” and admonish them to, “Leave room for the Holy Spirit!”

Sister Allison was emphatic the Holy Spirit would like to occupy the entire area beneath our shoulders. Using that as a guideline, when you greet a woman with a hug, bend forward at the waist, put your arms around them, but nothing below their collarbone should be touching your body; it’s an arms and shoulders movement. The creepy guys like a, shall we say, more robust hug.

The good guy might see giving compliments as a potential minefield; it doesn’t have to be that way. Can you tell someone they look nice? Yes. Can you tell them, “That’s a pretty dress?” Yes. Can you tell them, “I love to watch you walk away?” No. That’s a big fat no. What would Aunt Mathilda say? “I like your haircut,” is acceptable; “I’d like to mess up that hair,” not acceptable.

A really big trouble spot is travel. It can be awkward for a man and woman traveling together for business, right? Wrong. It isn’t awkward at all to travel with Aunt Mathilda, is it? Women don’t have a problem traveling with their male coworkers. They have a problem traveling or even standing in line at Starbuck’s with a man who sexually harasses them. Don’t be nervous about waiting at the airport gate or sitting on a plane with a woman from work. Yes, you can even share a meal with them.

Here is the thing: Women are smart and they can easily separate the harassers from the good guys. Don’t worry so much that something you said or did that was possibly misunderstood. Most women when asked to identify sexual harassment would probably use the same expression as Supreme Court Justice Stewart when asked about what was or wasn’t pornography – “I know it when I see it.” We see the creeps, but we also see the good guys, and most of the men with whom we work, thankfully, are the good ones.

Mary H. Carey lives in Raleigh. You can see more of her writing at primaryily.com

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