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.