The word "harassing" gets a lot of use, but not always in the proper legal context. You might throw it out there when someone particularly gets your goat, such as a coworker, your neighbor or your ex. However, the way his behavior makes you feel is only one factor that contributes toward the word's legal definition. If you want to prove harassment in court, you'll have to establish several other things as well.
Harassment involves intentional behavior. You must prove that the individual who bothered you did so in an effort to cause you distress, or that he willfully committed an act knowing that it would distress you. For example, if you're alleging sexual harassment in the workplace, off-color jokes shared among coworkers at the water cooler may not constitute harassment unless you can prove that they intentionally engaged in the conversation within your earshot. The behavior cannot have any logical purpose other than to disturb you.
Another important factor is that the harassing behavior must be repetitious. An isolated incident is not harassment. If your ex plants a spider in your mailbox, knowing you're terrified of them, he hasn't harassed you. If he does so once or twice a week so you live in fear of thrusting your hand inside, this is harassment. The acts don't have to be identical each time -- they can be a series of different events. For example, he might plant the spider on Monday, then call you three times on Tuesday for no good reason, just to threaten you with more spiders or call you names.
Some states consider stalking to be harassment, in addition to separate ordinances against this type of behavior. In Arizona, for example, stalking is considered harassment if you tell the individual to stop following you or spying on you, but he doesn't desist and he has no logical reason for repeatedly being in the same location as you.
Harassment does not have to involve face-to-face confrontations. A pattern of text messages, emails, and phone calls can qualify. If someone repeatedly calls you but never says a word, this still constitutes harassing behavior even though he hasn't spoken. Debt collectors engage in harassment if they call you relentlessly, particularly at unconventional hours. If your ex leaves a disturbing handwritten note in your mailbox instead of a spider, the note is considered harassment.
If someone harms you physically, this can constitute harassment in addition to charges such as assault or battery. Threats count, even if he doesn't actually make physical contact with you. It's enough that the individual's behavior makes you feel that violence is a possibility. Sexual harassment can include overtures even if the other person doesn't actually touch you. If you're accosted for a discriminatory reason, such as because of your gender, race or religious beliefs, this can result in a more serious harassment charge against the perpetrator.
Degrees of Harassment
Harassment is a criminal charge, and it may be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the context and details of the offensive behavior. If you're harassed in the workplace, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit against your employer -- check with an attorney to find out if your case meets the necessary legal criteria. Otherwise, your municipal or county prosecutor would typically try the case in criminal court if you file charges.