Personal Space

I’ve said it before but for the record I’ll say again that there is no such thing as “personal space” beyond the United States. This notion that you own the air and a certain distance – 360 degrees around you that should not be violated – is an American invention and unwritten rule that billions of people in other countries find incomprehensible, ignore daily, and are perfectly okay with it.

Every day in Colombia, I’m reminded of this. I am standing on the train, there is plenty of space all over the place, and yet a woman chooses to stand right in front of me – face to face – and I’m screaming in my head “PERSONAL SPACE INVASION!!!” and she is seemingly not having a problem at all with the fact she’s standing practically nose to nose.

If you want "personal space" try an isolated and desolate beach, such as this one in Tayrona Park, Colombia

Sticking with the Metro for another example, I sit down and there is an empty seat between me and this man yapping on his cell phone. He decides, what the hell, the seat is empty so he’ll just stretch his free arm across it. Only problem is, as he talks on the phone he also talks with his hand laying across the back of the seat and that hand has gone way beyond my “personal space” touching my shoulder. I shift away a bit but I’m pinned in by the glass to my right. Each time I feel his hand, I look over annoyed but he doesn’t get it. Finally, I gesture for him to move his arm back to where it belongs, in his own space. Still yapping on the phone, he looks at me as if clueless of what I’m trying to say. He finally gets it and moves. We do stupid things while on cell phones, so this may just have been a function of his cell phone distraction, but still.

Next day I’m sitting in an empty coffee shop and four people walk in. Instead of choosing to sit at a table far away, they choose the table next to mine and proceed to make a nuisance of themselves by shifting the table closer to mine to accommodate more of their arriving friends. Pretty soon I’m pretty much pinned in. I guess they liked this table next to mine much better, but I who grew up with the whole personal space thing just don’t get it.

What personal space are you talking about fool? It's carnaval! The Carnavalada, Barranquilla, Colombia

On a park bench later that evening, I’m chilling, watching the world go by. Several other park benches are empty and guest which bench woman chooses? It happens on the bus. It happens in restaurants. It happens everywhere. The reality is personal space is not an issue with the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s because much of the world lives in confined spaces to start with. They are crammed into cities, share small huts with large families and must coexist in such close proximity. I’ve seen it in Europe, Africa, Asia, Central and now South America.

Truth is, like the cold showers I’ve had to endure every day, I’ve grown sort of used to giving up my personal space. Unless the person is being obnoxious like the guy on the train, I embrace the fact that people are comfortable enough with each other to stand so close to strangers. But I still in my head hum that anthem of personal space by The Police: “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…” Hmmm… those guys are Brits, aren’t they? Maybe we as American inherited the whole “personal space” thing from the Brits.

Categories: Rants and Raves | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Personal Space

  1. Pamela

    Super funny “extra good belly laugh” – The best part was the lady on the bus. I know you had a look on your face like “what the hey” am I being pranked? Keep em comming, great reading.


    Oh Mike you make me laugh so hard today with this!! When I first came to the US I didn’t understand until one of my relatives explained to me.
    I was taking a cruise trip and there was a couple in a Jacuzzi I sat right next to them, and they move a little bit away from me… And I follow them a couple of times always sitting closer to them (not in purpose)… until they couldn’t take it anymore! The funny part the rest of the Jacuzzi was empty. I didn’t mean to make them feel uncomfortable 🙁
    I am used to be close to other people… After 5 years I have learn about personal space, but it can be difficult in both ways

  3. Italy I found some of that. Not so much in France or Germany. In some countries just depends on where you are and the situation. I mentioned the personal space thing to some Colombian friends and they had not noticed or even given it any thought until i mentioned it. We had some laughs noticing examples all around us. They thought it was pretty funny and said it’s a touchy feely society that has no qualms with proximity.

  4. Nanine

    Hi Michael,
    I agree personal space can be a cultural challenge. But did you find it so in Italy, France or Germany? I never felt crowded there. Ditto Argentina.

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