Personal space invaders

Personal space invaders: I need to draw a line


30th May 2016

It was one of those travel experiences that was too ridiculous to be believed, but it got me thinking. I was at Delhi airport in the first-class lounge waiting to return to Australia. It threatened to be a painful eight-hour transit following a flight from Europe, so I decided to pay the exorbitant entry fee and relax.

As expected, the lounge was luxury-plus. Until a visit to the bathroom. As with many toilet cubicles, there was significant space between the partitions and the floor. A woman in a sari was standing with cleaning fluids and a bucket when I went in. I nodded, she nodded, then I shut the toilet door but could see her feet close by.

I was in there for a while, dealing with layers of clothes and passport bag strapped to the body, then putting on a fresh T-shirt after a long haul. Anyway, the process was clearly too lengthy for her. She started yelling at me in Hindi and banging the bucket. I called back “Just a moment”, feeling like a naughty five-year-old. Suddenly a mop came under the floor partition into my cubicle. I sat there watching it in disbelief.

Point made. I skulked out and back into the world of business suits, sartorial elegance and piped muzak.

And I got to thinking about personal space — having just spent time in India, where people literally breathe down your neck at an ATM or cuddle up at a hotel counter; Spain, where people touch and hug strangers without thought; and most extreme of all, Israel, where people intrude with their eyes and opinions, watching like vigilant parents. I was scolded on a bus for going out without an umbrella and one old man sitting by the pool told me I had to go to the doctor because I had swollen ankles (from flying, I explained to him, before wondering why I felt I had to).

In Australia, we have a comparative cultural aversion to personal-space invaders — whether encroachment by body, chair, look or mop. But in terms of spatial etiquette, what do we have a right to expect?

I would never sit next to someone on a bus or in a movie theatre if there was a reasonable free seat at a distance. On the beach I like a 2m berth. There was recently controversy about men who open their legs on public transport — man-spreaders? I haven’t seen any myself but I watched a woman encroach across the invisible line on a train with her bag and crossed leg, and the woman next to her accidentally crunched something. “Oops, sorry!” (Not.)

I go nuts when people sitting next to me fold one leg over their thigh so the bottom of their dirty shoe goes near me.

And as for a mobile phone in my eye at the movies … it might all end in tears.

Without offending anyone else’s right to invade, I don’t want to see up another person’s nostrils, or be sprayed by a fine mist of saliva from an orator’s enthusiasm.

At a party recently, a colleague started talking at a healthy distance (arm’s length) then got closer and closer, finally pinning me to the wall because I couldn’t step back any further. She wasn’t drunk or being sexually inappropriate. Just overexcited by the topic and insensitive to my boundaries. Perhaps her family were space invaders. When I finally extricated myself and ran away, I noted the next person she caught became squashed too.

I saw a sign recently in a shop that I think might do well in public places. “Please don’t touch or stand too close to the merchandise.” I can see a range of T-shirts now.

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I ended up a on plane filled with Chinese tourists in Italy. Incredibly rude although I imagine I will be crucified by the luvvies for pointing this out. They refused to line up when boarding the plane, just shoved past you or shoved you aside, to the point where the airport officials gave up trying to recheck their boarding passes. On the plane, the person next to more turned his head, looked me in the eye and sneezed directly onto my face without any attempt to cover his mouth. I was furious and was just about to verbally abuse him when the Italian flight attendant rushed over to apologise for the passenger. Interesting that people from a communist country all seem to be in it for themselves and yet refuse to take any responsibility for their behaviour.


In Europe it’s the constant smokers. They never let up. I might have a preference for a metre or so space and feel irate over any – most likely, unaware – intrusion but darker feelings than mere irritation arise if the intruder bears a cigarette!


First world problems are causing us to be constantly dissatisfied.  We have certainly learnt about our senses of entitlement which goes to every corner of our society.  We have the world richest poor people who still want more, so much so nobody seems to have a problem with us leaving our lifestyle debt to be paid for by the yet to be born generations.


Are you looking for things to be upset about on a scale of 1 – 1000 it would have to be the least important.


Ruth, One thing is clear; the offending behaviour will only continue unless you intervene and make your views known and request that it stop. One doesn’t have to be rude just polite but firm.

Speak up!

Tell these interlopers you would prefer that they mind their manners. You might be surprised to find that it actually works.

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