Touching on a sensitive subject : Washington Days

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The Independent Online
Martin Fierro, the fictional gaucho who is to Argentina what Don Quixote is to Spain, had wise counsel for someone in my predicament. "When you wander in foreign lands you must be serene and prudent."

Never in 15 years of travel have I felt more pressingly the need to heed the gaucho's advice than now, three weeks into my arrival in the United States. One false move, I fear, and I'll end up in court, paying damages for the rest of my life.

I'm talking about sexual harassment, of course.

Having settled into the touchy-feely routines of everyday life in countries like South Africa and Nicaragua, I worry each time I come into contact with people - especially women - I will find myself unable to restrain the conversational habit of reachingout and touching them. I mean as a way of emphasising a point, of acknowledging a bon mot, of highlighting an irony - whatever.

There I was last week, for example, sitting in a deli in Long Island opposite a young woman reporter who worked for a local newspaper. We were covering the same court case and had popped out together for a quick lunch. I had met her the night before. We had been introduced by a good mutual friend - sufficient guarantee, I would have thought, that my worst predatory instincts were reasonably in check.

We had been chatting in soberly professional vein when I reached out across the table top and - applying the lightest, most fleeting of contacts - touched the sleeve of her coat at a point roughly midway between the wrist and the elbow. The gesture had been prompted by the sudden recognition on my part that, regarding whatever it was we were talking about, I had made a mistake and she was right.

She thought - well, I don't know what she thought. But she reacted as if my hand were a burning hot poker. She didn't just start. She jumped. The colour drained from her face. Her eyes registered first alarm, then confusion. I felt confusion, then alarm."What if she screams? Will she call the police?"

She didn't scream. Embarrassed, we briskly resumed our conversation. I think - I want to believe - that she realised she had over-reacted. I felt, without quite understanding why, as if I had committed a terrible violation of local custom, as if I had behaved with the crass inappropriateness so often attributed to Americans abroad.

The one things for sure, I won't be seeing this woman again for a while. I won't even call her. I might make a mess of things again and discover she has accumulated sufficient evidence to bring a suit against me. No one, from President Clinton down, is immune to charges of sexual harassment. The FBI had to pay $300,000 (£194,000) to a female former agent last month. A case is under way involving two employees at the United Nations; the woman is a US citizen, the man - in a further warning to me - is Latin American.

I need help. I need to unlearn what I learnt in my travels and rediscover the British boarding- school child within. I also need insurance.

Inquiries suggest my premium to cover liability in a sexual-harassment suit would be significantly lower if I go on a sexual- harassment training course - of the type obligatory for employees in the State Department and other government agencies.

The other day I had a brush with a female government worker who had been on one of these courses. Again, she was a friend of a friend. The friend, a man, was present. She was standing by a window, facing in. I craned my neck to look out of the window to check my car was where I had illegally parked it. During the act my left shoulder might have made contact with her left shoulder blade. For perhaps one and a half seconds the back of our heads were separated by a space of no more than six inches.

She took a step back, eyes blazing with indignation, and barked: "What are you doing?"

What I'd better do is get hold of a manual of the type supplied to staff by the DeSoto County Commission in Arcadia, Florida. The Commission had decided to draw up a document defining policy on sexual harassment.

The alternative is to avoid women altogether. Which brings to mind another seasonal piece of homespun gaucho wisdom, as contained in a limerick I learnt in Nicaragua: "There was a young gaucho called Bruno, Who said, if there's one thing I do know: Womenare fine, Sheep are divine, But llamas are numero uno."

John Carlin