Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Personal Space - The Final Frontier

by Glenn T (writer), Las Vegas, NV, October 05, 2009


Another travel misadventure reveals yet another area of abject social decay - except this time, I've finally had enough and I can't take it anymore.

In most matters, I'm not an ethnocentrist. I'm all for the melting pot that is the United States. The broad array of cultures that have been brought to our shores have contributed immeasurably to the success of America. The notion of requiring people to speak English only is laughably absurd to me, and decrying culturally-specific holidays, including foreign days of independence (e.g. Cinco de Mayo), as a loss of the American identity is just plain stupid. But there is one point of purely white-bread American custom on which I must insist. There is one decidedly red, white and blue rule of social conduct which appears to be of minimal importance to immigrant Americans which I'm afraid I must enforce. There is one thing that, no matter how much tolerance and cultural sensitivity is beaten into me, I will not budge on. And that is: stay the hell out of my personal space.

I'm not sure how the views on this have gotten so disparate between later-generation Americans and the rest of the world. And to be frank, I really don't care. I have no interest in why the older Latino women at Costco assume they can push their cart into mine with a disinterested aplomb or why the older Filipino man on the airplane claimed all the armrest real estate (and a couple of inches of my own seat space) on my recent flight out of Las Vegas with no more concern than had my seat been empty. I just want them to back off. I don't care about diplomacy when it comes to a stranger invading my personal bubble, I just want them to stop touching me. It is the ultimate affront to civility when the unsavory have a right-of-way simply because they don't care about whose space they're in, and no one else can stand having them in theirs. It's precedence via social leprosy - and I've had enough.

Edward T. Hall produced the most groundbreaking work in this field way back in 1966, in his seminal work The Hidden Dimension, which established the field of proxemics - the study of set measurable distances between people as they interact. According to Mr. Hall, the following are the standard distances for American culture:

  • Intimate distance - for embracing, touching or whispering
    • Close phase – less than 6 inches
    • Far phase – 6 to 18 inches
  • Personal Distance - for interactions among good friends or family members
    • Close phase – 1.5 to 2.5 feet
    • Far phase – 2.5 to 4 feet
  • Social Distance - for interactions among acquaintances
    • Close phase – 4 to 7 feet
    • Far phase – 7 to 12 feet
  • Public Distance - used for public speaking
    • Close phase – 12 to 25 feet
    • Far phase – 25 feet or more

Now I recognize that in the situations that provide the greatest opportunity for personal space violation - transportation, shopping, entertainment, etc., most of these distances are an impossibility, but I've always felt that one of the basic assumptions of agreeing to go into these situations with other people is that we'll do our level best to try and meet these distance requirements if possible. So why does it seem like cultural ignorance and age have become excuses to disregard this rule?

According to the foremost expert on the subject, the only good reason you have to be inside of four feet of me is if we're good friends, family or about get intimate. Four feet! Here's some news - regardless of where you're from, what God you pray to, or how long you've been on this planet, you're none of the above - and if you were, you'd know it.

In most matters I can tolerate the fact that we're becoming less and less gentrified. Hell, in some cases I even enjoy it. I may not like the fact that it's become completely acceptable to bolt a device onto the exhaust pipe of your Honda Civic so that I have to hear it four blocks away from inside my own car, but I do appreciate a good curse word now and then, and have never minded a nice bare midriff (muffin tops excluded). We've got to draw the line somewhere, and I'm ready to put right where Francis "Psycho" Saywer did in 1981. Any of you touch me, and I'll kill ya.

Okay, so maybe I won't go that far, but so you know, you're pushing me. You're pushing us. The whole tolerance crowd has just about had it. We're tired of getting out of your way just because the thought of you that close to us is revolting. We've grown weary of keeping our mouths shut when you plop yourself down close enough to us that we can evaluate the effectiveness of your last shower, despite there being plenty of room available. And we're fed up with your plaintive stare, feigning cultural ignorance when do something you know damned well is not o.k.

It's no secret that intolerance and hate are on the rise, especially as times get tough. For my part, I increasingly have to rebuff the forwarded e-mails and video clips from my red-state family and friends that increasingly target immigrants as the root of all of our evils. Quite frankly, their arguments are vitriolic and nonsensical. But, despite the victory for change and reason in the White House, these ridiculous movements are gaining momentum. And I fear that the root of this is a simple lack of respect.

Unlike my preferences in women's footwear, my disdain for abject douchebaggery, and my hatred of Notre Dame, my need for personal space is not a personality trait or social affliction. It is, as many social scientists have discovered, a deeply integral part of how we interact with one another. There is little need for us to speak the same languages, wear the same clothes or celebrate the same holidays, no matter if we're native, transplanted or visiting. But the space we give to one another is something else entirely. It is essential to our coexistence.

For my part, I'm still trying to fulfill my end of the contract. I didn't ram my cart back into the woman at Costco, and I didn't elbow the man next to me on the plane back into his own seat. I expect that I'll continue to simply fume and steam in relative silence, giving way and giving space, reducing my own proximate happiness for the blissful freedom of having my 18 inches back. But, I fear that banking on the impulse control of an entire nation who seems bent on the celebration of interpersonal violence is a really bad idea. The boiling point, if not yet reached, can't be far off. Perhaps instead, we can abandon the pursuit of our glorious individuality just long enough to stay out of each other's way. Or at least out of each other's space. A little breathing room may be just what we need to enjoy how wonderfully different we all are.

See also:

In Certain Circles, Two is a Crowd

Wikipedia: Proxemics

About the Writer

Glenn T is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Personal Space - The Final Frontier

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By manny osborne on October 05, 2009 at 09:30 pm

great article but Cinco de Mayo is not an independence day  of any country yet.

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By wolviela on October 06, 2009 at 12:54 am

I think with the encrouching of natural space has come the encrouchment of personal space. Thanks for writing what most people think.

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