THE LOOK on her face said it all.
Angela Merkel was not happy.
The German chancellor — the only woman at a gathering of powerful world leaders — was the unwilling recipient of a quick neck massage at the hands of President George W. Bush. The scene, which played out at the Group of Eight Summit in St. Petersburg, became an Internet sensation, mostly because of Merkel’s reaction.
The chancellor hunches her shoulders, throws up her arms, and flashes a look of utter dismay. Women everywhere feel her discomfort.
The incident made international news. One German tabloid headlined it “Bush: Love Attack on Merkel.” Since everything is now fair game for partisan attack, the presidential neck rub also fired up Bush critics at home. On the ultra-liberal Huffington Post, author Steve Young dubbed Bush “lounge-lizard in chief” and deplored the president’s initiation of “an inappropriate and unrequested back rub.”
That extreme level of Bush-bashing makes liberals look silly. After all, it’s impossible to talk about presidents and sexual harassment without mentioning Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In that case, the president of the United States had sexual relations with a White House intern. Lewinsky never took it to court; but courts have ruled that sexual harassment can occur even if both participants are willing. It’s the power differential that counts.
The quickie neck rub was something different.
Photos from the summit show Bush touching Merkel’s hand and the chancellor laughing. Then Bush definitely crossed a familiarity line. If you are pro-Bush, you say it is a natural outgrowth of his informal, regular-guy persona. If you’re anti-Bush, you say it is a product of his frat-boy cluelessness.
As it happens, this interaction between two heads of state put an international spotlight on a fact of life for working women.
You can spend a career perfecting your handshake and still be startled by a man who suddenly invades your personal space with unexpected intimacy in a professional setting. This is a non partisan observation. Trust me, Democrats do it, too.
The oft- quoted Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, told the Associated Press, “almost any male alive today knows that you don’t offer uninvited massages to any female, much less the chancellor of Germany.”
But the truth is: Touching happens; usually it isn’t caught on video. The challenge is figuring out how to handle it.
Most working mothers can probably recollect at least one unsolicited belly pat during pregnancy. Beyond pregnancy, there’s the unforeseen kiss of greeting, instead of the expected hand grip; the arm that reaches out, draws you in, and squeezes a welcome; and the fingers on the back of the neck, kneading, in Bush-like fashion.
In the workplace, if a superior — male or female — engages in unwelcome touching, a case can be made for sexual harassment. A CEO runs the risk of losing his job for such behavior. In Boston, one recently did. Dr. Robert Haddad was recently forced to resign as head of the Caritas Christi Health Care System over allegations that he sexually harassed several female employees. The charges involved incidents where he allegedly kissed women on the lips; Haddad said it was a custom of his Lebanese upbringing.
But as with Bush and Merkel, an incident can involve professional equals who do not work for the same company or government. And when it happens, at a G-8 summit or a business conference, the interaction does not routinely lend itself to a law suit. You turn away from the lips, push the arm away, move away from the hands on your neck. Your reaction depends on how well you know the man lunging your way, and the overall context in which it occurs.
Is it a mostly innocent, if socially boorish, version of the male-to-male, locker room towel snap? Or, is it a way to demean and patronize, to change the equation by neutralizing the woman’s power so it is no longer a case of two professional equals? Some say that’s what Bush was doing, but it doesn’t look that way to me. In either case, is it best to dodge it with a joke? Or, do you offer a frosty put-down and act like a humorless you-know-what?
There is always the Merkel option: just grimace and bear it.