What About Boundaries? – It’s Not Black and White

In today’s society, norms are changing. Personal boundaries are constantly shifting. And most people think that “their” boundaries are right and everyone else should respect those boundaries. It seems fairly common sense.

I always find this topic interesting. I heard a show on NPR discussing a topic like this. What I found interesting was when the hosts simply said, “It’s obvious what’s OK and what’s not” (or something to that effect). The reality is that people have different ideas of what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not.

I’m going to talk about business networking here, simply as an example since I have some experience and it might be considered less controversial. Also because it’s business and these days there is quite a bit of discussion around behavior in business settings.

I know a lady who does a lot of networking, who got upset that someone expected a hug from her. Ok… I know she’s a hugger. She’s hugged me and never asked for permission. I never expect a hug from anyone, but many people simply expect them from me. I don’t mind and tend to go with the flow. But, with that dichotomy, how do you set boundaries? How do you even know what a person’s boundaries are?

During a recent discussion on networking etiquette, it was discussed that some felt that during your first 1-on-1/coffee meeting you should spend most of the time discussing personal interests. Getting to know each other and save business for the next meeting. Other networkers I know are more to the point but still tend to teach that you should get to know each other personally for 5-10 minutes at the start of a meeting.

I’ve spent over a decade in academia and science until I left 5 years ago. Most of my interactions were 100% business. I never knew much personal information about people. As I got started networking, I was told, often by people who say it’s OK to establish boundaries, that I need to change my boundaries.

So, which is it? I have yet to have anyone ask my opinion on how we should handle personal discussions. “Would you like to spend some time getting to know each other personally or should we get to business?” I don’t ask either and simply go with what I think the other person is doing. I try to match them.

“Of course, there are some things we can all agree are past the line.” Not really. If this were true, people would not cross “that line,” would they? Kind of a definition, right?

I get people all the time who want to get too personal too quickly for my preference. But I know that line of “too personal” is my own and there is not a single line that everyone agrees on.

I’m not trying to make a conclusion here. Simply point out that with so many humans, knowing the lines, and staying inside the lines is a challenge. There are as many lines as there are people on the planet. In fact, most people have a variety of lines depending on many factors. So, it is actually 7.5 billion * [some number].

My simple point is, try not to take things too personally if someone crosses your line. Sure, there are some generally accepted lines. Remember, though, that those change “daily” and are different in different circumstances, different cultures, different parts of the country, etc.

I guess the one line we should try to agree upon as unalterable is a simple, firm, but polite, “I’m not comfortable [saying/discussing/doing/etc] that. Thanks anyway.” And having that line be respected

I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic.


Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes is founder and CEO of Awakened Innovations, Inc. Awakened Innovations helps nonprofits to save time and money by connecting them with high-quality, vetted, service providers. Previously, Michael has been a business coach; Director of Lab Operations at, Assurex Health (a genetic testing laboratory); and built the Cincinnati Biobank and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Michael’s overarching passion is to help others succeed and fulfill their mission in life.

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  1. People are lonely and will do whatever it takes to find someone to listen to them. They think they are irrelevant, so off they to a networking meeting and they tend to treat it as a Al/Anon or similar. If you happen to turn an acquaintance into a friend, good for you. However, I do not think networking is the place to listen to others’ tales of woe and sad stories. Later maybe, outside of work, but not at a business event. Great thoughts and ideas Michael.

  2. Interesting article. In this day an age, people seem to have a need to share, especially if the immediate connection is comfortable, and possibly, if that person has been in the same situation and may offer a better understanding. All the years I dealt in police work, often there were no choices but to listen to something you wish could just pass, but in the majority of the business world, I agree with the thoughts presented.

  3. “I don’t ask either and simply go with what I think the other person is doing. I try to match them.”

    And since there’s likely to never be a one-size-fits-all definition of appropriate, Mike, that’s as a good a way to think of how to act as any!

    Funny how this topic keeps coming up, right? And, like you, I do a lot of networking, and I’ve run into both extremes of the spectrum when it comes to the first 1-2-1: either ALL business, to the extent of laying out dozens of things the person sells (happened twice in the past year), or almost needing a box of tissues to deal with the hurt, pain, utter despair of someone needing so badly to talk about her (nearly always a woman in this situation) horrible background and/or current life.

    I’m not comfortable with a quick deep dive into someone’s pain; that needs to come way later — if it does at all — once we’ve gotten some other easier groundwork laid.

    I think it takes awareness of the pitfalls of either extreme, and that’s what I see in your article here. No absolute answers, but an awareness that we’re not all alike, and what can seem appropriate to one person or situation might not fit another.

    I’m going to share this with my LI connections, Mike, especially as I wrote about this topic about a week ago myself. Let’s keep the conversation going!