Boundaries: How to know when you’ve crossed a line, and what you should do about it.

Have you ever wondered why different people react differently to the things you say and do? Maybe you told your parents a story that made them laugh, but found that the same story was upsetting to the kids at school. Maybe you posed a question to a few of your friends, and were surprised to find that one of them became offended. What caused them to react so differently? The answer has something to do with a tricky concept called boundaries.

The reason boundaries are so tricky is because different people have different boundaries. And if you aren’t able to recognize and respect a person’s boundaries, you might offend them.

What exactly are boundaries, and how can you tell when you’ve crossed them?

Put simply, boundaries are the cut-off point between what a person finds funny and endearing, and what they find hurtful and inappropriate. Our boundaries play an important role in how we feel about different types of conversation, jokes, physical contact, etc. A person’s boundaries can be influenced by a variety of factors including their family background, religious beliefs, and even their past experiences. You may not always share a person’s boundaries, but it’s still important to respect them.

This can be difficult, particularly if you aren’t sure what type of boundaries a person has. That’s why it’s especially important to be a good listener when you’re first getting to know someone. Listening will help you get a feel for the topics they are comfortable discussing. Pay attention to the way they react to your ideas and jokes. If they become withdrawn when you bring up a certain topic, or they try to change subjects, you may be making them uncomfortable.

Sometimes, a person will tell you directly if you’ve crossed a line. In that case, it’s always best to apologize and correct the offensive behavior. Failing to take a step back when you’ve been asked to—either literally or figuratively—can create a lot of discomfort for the people around you.

That doesn’t mean that you should be anxious about getting to know new people. What it does mean is that you should be mindful of the way a person reacts to what you say and do. Be sure to listen throughout the conversation, and take note if something you’ve said has been taken the wrong way. If so, apologize and try not to repeat the behavior. Most friends can forgive a one-time slip up, but making the same mistake repeatedly can damage a friendship.

Getting to know a person and their boundaries can take patience. With any new relationship you’ve got to become familiar with each other’s likes and dislikes; what makes each other happy and sad. Usually, this information is discovered over the course of time as each person in the relationship becomes more comfortable and reveals more about themselves.  As this happens, each person in the relationship will either become more or less comfortable with the friendship.

It’s impossible for a true friendship to form if one person is uncomfortable around the other. So how can you tell if you’re making someone uncomfortable? Some people can sense this naturally. But in case you have difficulty judging when a person is uncomfortable, we’ve put together a cheat sheet. Here are the things you should take note of:

  • Eye Contact. Whether or not a person is looking you in the eyes is a strong indicator of how comfortable they are with your conversation. A person who is meeting your eyes is showing you that they are engaged in the conversation, and willing to continue it. On the other hand, breaking eye contact for long periods of time is a common way for a person to communicate that they are uncomfortable.
  • Body Language. When a person is comfortable, they usually have a relaxed posture. If they are uncomfortable, their posture is likely to be more rigid. They may try to create some kind of barrier to you by crossing their arms or turning away. By doing this, they might be telling you that they are uncomfortable with either the proximity between you, or the nature of the conversation.
  •  Topic Changes. A person who is comfortable in a conversation can usually stay on topic for a long period of time. But if you notice the person you are speaking with is repeatedly changing the subject or trying to redirect the conversation, they are probably trying to tell you that they’d like to talk about something different. Even if you really want to talk about a certain subject or ask a certain question, your persistence will only make the person more uncomfortable.
  • Direct Complaints. While many people won’t tell you directly that you’ve made them uncomfortable, some people will. They may tell you that you’re standing too close to them, starting conversations that are too personal, or touching their belongings when they’d rather you didn’t. If this is the case, then ignoring their complaints could be offensive to them. When confronted with a direct complaint, the best thing to do is apologize and correct the behavior.

There are, of course, exceptions to each of these rules. The person you’re talking to may just be having a bad day, or have a lot on his mind. Still, it’s always best to be as considerate as possible. If you notice the person you’re talking to is showing signs of discomfort, it might be helpful to pull back in the conversation, and let them take the lead for a while. If you are worried that you’ve made someone uncomfortable enough to offend them, acknowledging your mistake and apologizing is usually the best way to smooth things over.

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Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More