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Personal Space Boundaries Have Shifted, Where's The Line?

From a handshake, a pat on the back right through to a kiss on the cheek or a hug -- when it comes to workplace touching, experts are divided about where the line is, as more high-profile offices make headlines.

On Thursday, former U.S Vice President Joe Biden made some vague concessions about his workplace interactions amid multiple allegations from women about unwanted and inappropriate behaviour.

In a video released on Twitter, he promised to be more "mindful and respectful", noting that "boundaries of protecting personal pace have been reset."

Seven women have complained about unwanted close contact with the prominent politician.

READ MORE: Joe Biden Has Spoken Out Following Multiple Allegations Against Him

But Biden maintains that he has always sought to "make a human connection".

Biden said he is always openly affectionate with colleagues, despite seven women filing complaints against him.

"I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say you can do this,” he said.

"It's leaving men confused, [but] it's not leaving women confused. Women have always wanted space respected," Dr Louise Mahler said about the rise in female complainants of workplace harassment.

IMAGE: Getty Images

The author and body language expert said a person's age, gender and position of power all need to be considered when establishing what is appropriate.

"When Joe Biden said 'I have always been shaking hands' -- well of course he has, but that's not where the problem lies. It's the other forms of touching and kissing of younger female staff," she said.

Mahler said Biden's video post was all about how he felt, and what he learned, but didn't show empathy to the impact his actions had.

She said if you're considering anything beyond a handshake with a colleague or in a business environment, proceed with caution.

"Boundaries can be crossed if you ask permission. Just like Jacinda Ardern did in her interview with Waleed Aly when she asked if a hug is okay. It's not hard to find out what is and isn't okay," she said.

However, some feel the #MeToo movement, and society’s shifting attitudes towards sexual harassment is demonising all men.

"Increasingly younger guys in their 30s and 40s are coming to our men's meetings and commenting on this rapid social change and they just don't know how to act or what to do," David Mallard, CEO of Melbourne Men's Group Inc, told 10 daily.

Mallard runs weekly men's group catch-ups in suburbs all over Melbourne, as well as personal growth workshops.

The weekly meetings are growing in size, Mallard said. IMAGE: supplied.

"Anything about men that is spoken about in the media and politics is not positive. It's all about the toxic stuff. There is a real sense of sadness and anxiety in young men," he said.

Mallard said his men's group has 800 members, and it's growing weekly as more men look for guidance.

"If someone says something about a man's behaviour, whether it's true or proven, it gets shared and spread so quickly and can damage lives and careers," he said.

READ MORE: 'Let's Stop Man-Shaming': Claims It Has Muzzled Men

In 2018 the Australian Council of Trade Unions conducted an online survey of 7500 people, which found 61 percent of women and 35 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.

Mahler said that it's important women and men give "positional feedback" before it ends up with the human resources department or in legal proceedings.

"It's important to give in the moment feedback, people often turn around and tell a colleague, or don't tell anyone or keep it in. You need to communicate your position properly and assertively," she said.

The use of touch in the workplace usually has negative connotations such as harassment complaints and lawsuits. Very little research has been conducted on other impacts of touch in the workplace.

An office team are celebrating together, embracing and applauding each other after a successful business pitch.

A 2013 article in the Journal of Managerial Issues on tactile interaction norms and positive workplace touch shows that there are some benefits of physical interaction with colleagues.

They cite research that managers who use it are seen as more sincere, effective, supportive and relatable.

The authors also explain how touch can be used to reinforce or enhance a verbal message and improve interpersonal communication overall.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au