Sidin’ With Biden – Touch and Leadership

The prevailing wisdom of the moment is right and fair:  Individuals have boundaries and each person should be able to control their boundaries.  Joe Biden has been accused by a number of women of invading their sense of physical comfort – touching or holding them in ways that were unbidden and unwelcome by them.  They are not alleging sexual abuse or assault, but that they felt uncomfortable or embarrassed.  He has, in my humble opinion, rightly apologized for his offenses. He has also acknowledged that cultural mores have changed and call for heightened respect for individuals. He says he has gained awareness and will change his behavior. Let it be clear:

Caveat princeps:   Let the leader beware.  Beware. Be aware.  Be wary.

You may feel you have a right to express yourself:

  • to grab another to get their attention
  • to hug another to express your empathy
  • to push a perceived offender away from another (tougher case)
  • to “help” a person in a wheelchair to get through a door or a blind person to cross a street, or
  • to touch a “marginalized” person to show your desire to welcome them . . .

Stop. You don’t have that right or duty – even if you intend it as a gift, a display of affection, etc.

Because none of these persons are objects. They are subjects. Each has their own thoughts, feelings, families, attitudes and bodies, in which these other aspects are all, yes, em-bodied. We are learning together the changing context of this radical rule of respect.

My wife is learning it, because she loves, in my word, to familiarly “whack” someone on the shoulder, to challenge them or buck them up.  I’m learning it – painfully – when in my first year at Cal I got hauled in by two deans, because I had (in my view) tapped a young woman while she felt it was, or was on the verge of, assault.  I had touched her on the shoulder with the back of my hand, while verbally encouraging her to join the cluster of students working together at the whiteboard.  The administrators invited me in, “investigating,” and after my initial petulance and righteous indignation, I could see the point they were unequivocally clear about:   a student’s safety mattered, and the student’s perception, not my intention, controlled the case.

Now, as leaders, let’s not miss something here.

Human touch has enormous POSITIVE impact on the quality of human life.  Intuition tells us it’s so.  As does science:  Human touch dramatically improves the birth weight of preemies. Human touch helps diminish depression in Alzheimers patients.1  Human touch creates, nurtures and heals social bonds.  Patients touched by their doctors have better medical outcomes.2   Students who are touched on the shoulder by a teacher learn better, those touched by a librarian read more. High-fives spur enthusiasm among social beings. Primates who groom each other are more likely to share food with each other.3

Context, as always, matters.  Biden should quit joking about this, because there is an important principle of human respect in play, and he might be more sensitive to that.  And ….

People talk about Biden as “gregarious” or “touchy-feely,” or my favorite: “a tactile politician.”  He is being characterized as at best quaint, likely just weird, and at worst creepy.  I beg to differ.  In general, and in the right context, his characteristically extraverted feeling behaviors aren’t bad or even neutral.  They represent one of animals’ and human animals’ most virtuous characteristics.  For every woman who felt uncomfortable about his kiss on the back of her head, I suspect there have been hundreds if not thousands who have been uplifted by “Joe,” the regular guy’s innocent social-emotional connecting.

I’m “sidin’ with Biden,”4 as I’ve titled this blog, because I imagine that some of his meaningful “touching” also comes from the fact that he lost essential physical touch when his wife died in a car crash, and again when his son Beau died of cancer.  As a human, you miss that TOUCH. Perhaps some of Biden’s touching comes from the remembrance of his own father’s hand on his shoulder.  How many of us have felt the power of that gesture by a parent, teacher, or coach?  He’s a physical guy. When he got beat up as a kid, he says his mom told him to go out on the street and bloody his aggressor’s nose.

We are not and should not become detached automatons, signing contracts of acceptance before we touch someone’s forearm, shoulder, or back of their hand?  And leaders, though mindful, will miss enormous opportunities to lead, if they restrain themselves from all touch. We’ve got to maintain if not heighten our respect for others’ bodies and feelings; but without touch, we will surely not be

Leading with our best selves!


Biden and Granholm at Lafayette Coney Island

Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley pioneers research on human touch.  Here’s a link to a fascinating 7-minute video in which he highlights research studies on touch.

David Linden of UNC provides fascinating insights in his TEDx talk on “The Science of Touching and Feeling.”

Frans de Waal the primatologist, has a new book called Mama’s Last Hug, and I can hardly put this book down, as he challenges what we think about emotion and body, with both human and primate examples.

4 I have other friends who are like Biden – men and women who are physically demonstrative.  Occasionally, there is a “boundary issue,” but so often, when my friend John Gallo hugs someone to console, or kisses a friend – male or female – as his Italian father would kiss him – I see joy spread with the touch.  As for Biden, I’m admittedly partial.  My wife was helping him in debate prep back in 2008, and when he heard it was our child’s 18th birthday, he insisted on getting on the phone to cheer him on.  His demonstrative action was so “touching” that it not only uplifted Connor, but our whole family.


  • I am going to present quite an opposite view of this Dan, as an observer, then as a female, a founder of a company and a teacher who likes to hug others when the invitation to engage in a hug, is accepted. So my first point is crucial: if I do not respect others’ boundaries, especially when I hold a position of authority and power in the eyes of others (as surely would be the case for any CEO, boss, teacher, leader, US Senator or VP), then I have violated a core principle of morality: to not wield power over others, if I continually ignore messages about others spacial and touch boundaries. This is abuse, plain and simple. Second, regarding Biden specifically, I don’t recall hearing or seeing an apology from him in any of his explanations; I did see his most recent explanation, which consisted of mainly joking about the whole thing in a lighthearted fashion. If I missed an apology, then I apologize myself — sincerely — (and would be grateful for a link to when he did that, whether a video or some written form). And so whether he actually apologized or not, as an observer of numerous videos of him inappropriately (not just creepy, but much beyond this) touching, caressing, tugging at, pulling towards him, following behind and pushing up against, and repeatedly leaning in over and over again — all with young girls from early teens to as young as 2 years old – and all while these young girls immediately and instinctively pulled away, I am shocked. And I am further shocked to see and hear so many chalk this up to former “social norms” of some prior times. He doesn’t do this with young boys, he might be seen – though rarely – being chummy with males, but this is always in the “good old boy” way without the over-the-top (aka sexual) caressing and smelling and kissing and nudging (and on and on). He is seen doing this not with just everyone, but with countless females, young to old but it is the unbelievable number of instances caught on camera where it involves young children that is so very disturbing. This is never acceptable and to try and make it so by rationalizing it as a social norm in times past is just as incredible to me. Males ARE different than females and their very nature requires society to ensure they quickly learn the difference between touch among family members (and even what boundaries there are for this), including especially their own daughters, touch with a sexual partner, touch with close friends, and touch with those outside of these personal relationships. My hunch is that his behavior has been “overlooked,” however uncomfortable for so many to have witnessed, exactly because of his positions of (extreme) power. Beyond President of the United States, VP is likely to be considered by many, the next most powerful position in the world! But even if not, no study about the importance of touch for humans will ever persuade me that Biden’s type of overt fondling of young girls falls into any acceptable category other than on the wrong side of a line that Western culture (at least), has set in place as one “not-to-be-crossed,” a very long time ago, And this is a line he has visibly crossed on countless occasions, with little girls, witness-able by whoever desires to see how often this really occurred, thanks to the Internet.

    • Anna,
      You and I agree on the basic proposition which my friend Ken may not: Individuals have an entitlement to some zone of space around themselves. As Biden has said, “‘[A]ny woman or man who feels uncomfortable, should have the right to say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with that.'” And “initiators” of contact (as you say, especially those with authority) should act in a way that the recipient doesn’t have to say that.
      However, I believe you go too far in your condemnations of Biden as an individual person. When you retroactively say, “this is abuse, plain and simple” it both tortures the word “abuse” and elides a sweeping moral principle with particular behavior in an imbalanced way. You say it’s immoral “if I continually ignore messages about others spacial and touch boundaries.” But where were these “messages” that Biden ignored? You suggest that he was protected from receiving these messages; and I don’t doubt that. People in power don’t always hear the unvarnished truth. But to imply that he was ignoring messages that he didn’t know were there imposes a standard that nearly makes it impossible to live in society. How many hundred messages do I explore when I teach a class of 700 people – of various cultural and personal circumstance?
      In gender studies and feminist circles and Gen Z classrooms these rules are quite clear. But to impose them on 70 year olds is a different story – and their story and cultural understanding over those 7 decades – deserves in fairness to be understood. I would contrast the touch of a grandfather/father/widow, for example, with the statement, “I just grab them by the p—-y” as an example of a grotestque violation of long-enduring norms; with the Biden case of weighing clips of behavior out of context held up to evolving and unspoken norms. So the norms have to be made clear. Have to become verbal. And applying one moral or legal standpoint from one era to another has a genuine unfairness about it. Cringeworthy is culture-dependent.
      We are animals. Take a trip to the zoo, watch primates, and there is all kinds of touching – NOT all sexual or invasive. Somehow, they communicate their boundaries, sometimes the boundaries are violated, and sometimes the offenders are punished.
      Our difference is we can use langauge to discuss these implied boundaries…which is exactly what you and I and Ken and Meryl are doing.
      MANY women – and girls, as you emphasize – have experienced unwanted approaches and touches. Some of those “aggressive” men (or other women in the case of lesbian behavior) had issues, had bad intent, were inebriated (not an excuse) or were just selfish and disrespectful. And many were NOT. Many operated by an unconscious social code wherein they thought a hug or a touch was understood as non-sexual and certainly not sexually aggressive. I hope ALL of us are learning to be verbal, to be more explicit, to understand that the recipient of our touch may not have the same unconscious rules of behavior as we do. But taking Ms. Flores’ subjective perception: she felt he was “smelling her hair.” Was he? Who would know whether he was smelling her hair in some presumed sexual way, as opposed to inhaling? This involves subjectivity in both cases. Do we completely discount his understanding that his touch was an intended expression of support?
      Yes, he was VP, had power. And VPs and other powerful people put a supportive hand on people, and it is likely primate behavior, if not mammalian, that conveys what? Kindness, encouragement, or a sexual prowl.
      TO CONDEMN him seems on its face unfair to me.
      The rules are clearer and that is great. But the judgments of the past are for more obscure than this. No?

      • Hi Dan, I appreciate you taking time to reply. In my view, as one that has been subjected to some similar infringements on my personal space by me
        n who way overstepped the boundary using touch, he ignored the clear messages being sent by those most vulnerable and with the least power of all – the young children (mostly girls, but not always). Again and again they cringe and pull away from him. Again and again he pursues. This is clear as a bell to me. I am not referring to teaching 700 people in a class or any number for that matter. I was a teacher and trainer for a large part of my own career and regularly address 60 and more people in all sorts of settings. I refer only to all those times we can visibly see (not knowing how many we have not seen) that are again, for me, clear as a bell. But I sincerely appreciate you trying to persuade me to see this different. I wish I could but I cannot.

  • Dan, I always respect your thoughful and thought provoking posts. I sort of stumble on your first sentence. I believe that in society each invidual cannot and should not be able to control their own boundry to the degree being shown by this incident(s). Let’s take the idea of controlling one’s own boundry on a not-illogical sprectrum. For instance, should this person be able to command the person behind her in line at the theater “Back up, you’re too close to me.”? No. Should she be on a crowded BART train should she be able to say “stop pressing your shoulder against mine; I demand my boundry.” Of course not. We live with other humans and we need to understand that world is not all about us. That also applies to social interactions.

    Your example of being called into Haas to be investigated is appalling (imho). The student’s percetion should not be all that matters. Not in regards to you, but the administrators who said that, what a ridiculous outlook and starting point. Of course your intent is part of the equation and what should also be part of the equation is how a random person would treat the encounter. She could easily – easily, given how you conduct your classes – gone to you and said “Dan, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch me. It makes me uncomfortable.” Or not feeling comfortable with that she could go to the admin and say the same thing. The admin should be approaching this from a neutral perspective, they shouldn’t alread be walking down a decision path, ie the starting point shouldn’t be “disprove the negative this person is asserting.” They had the opportunity to say to this young woman “we’ll talk to Dan. We’d encourage you to share your thoughts with him, because we know he’d be open to it and this won’t be the last time you encounter this in life.” but because of politically expediency, don’t. So not only do people get put through something they shouldn’t, we validate the behaviors and expectations. That is a big fail as far as I am concerned by the “adults” in the room.

    Finally, to your last part – For every woman who felt uncomfortable about his kiss on the back of her head, I suspect there have been hundreds if not thousands who have been uplifted by “Joe,” the regular guy’s innocent social-emotional connecting. – if this is true, which I believe it is, what an incredibly selfish outlook on the world that says “I want someone and society to change, because my feelings outweigh all the rest.” Honestly, I know it’s not the politically right thing to say, but sometimes you have to convey to people “get over yourself.”

    BTW, I loved when I first met Jen and was wearing my political shirt that she came up and sort of strangled me . I knew exactly what she was doing, I thought it was fun and I she immediatley won points in my book for being so great about it. Had she not reacted at all, or maybe in a more muted away, I think I would have sort of noted that.

    I feel pretty passionately about this because I believe at some point we have to say “hold on a second…” Good people are getting hurt and they don’t deserve that, as most of these cases demonstrate.

    Thanks for the read!

  • We do all have such different boundaries and preferences and I know the discomfort of experiencing unwanted touch in situations where I felt unable to speak up about it. I am glad that conversation is easier to have now. But it also saddens me that someone whose goodwill and tenderness bubbles over in affectionate touch needs to be wary of an innocent touch being interpreted as creepy. I recently hugged a man and got the sense as soon as I did it that it was unwelcome. I won’t do it again, and hope he will give me a pass for crossing a boundary I didn’t know was there… and learning from it.

    • MerylRose,
      I hear you.
      And I appreciate your pointing to the reciprocity of it, i.e., that there woman-to-man also requires a new awareness and sensitivity. There was a simplicity that we seem to have lost in all this. Yet, it’s worth paying that price if it makes others feel safe. With a student last week, who had shared a deeply personal and emotional story, I asked if it was okay to give her a hug. She laughed and said “of course.” I felt like I lost something of the spontaneity that is itself an expression of closeness and trust, but in the end, the hug AND respect were both in tact!

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