Back Up Off Me: Why Do So Many People Struggle With The Concept of Personal Space?

July 1, 2017  |  

personal space

Maybe I’m just being petty or maybe the older I get the lower my tolerance drops for people who are unfamiliar with social skills and how to conduct themselves through the day without being total jerks, but I’ve been noticing a trend lately and it’s only a matter of time before I end up on a viral video of a brawl in Walmart because of it. Is it me or are people struggling to grasp the concept of personal space? There was the lady who was standing so close to me in line that she could probably count the number of asterisks on the design of my Walmart credit card while I completed my transaction. Of course I asked her could she kindly take a few steps back so I could enter my pin in private. She probably was offended, but I didn’t care. These are skills that anybody with a decent amount of home training should have.

Then there was the man who proceeded to stand literally six inches away from me as I talked on the phone outside of my office building while he engaged in a heated discussion with a colleague. “Are you serious?” I questioned before storming into the building. All that sidewalk and you still can’t stay in your lane, sir? Do we have to be so close that you can see the trauma I’ve caused my eardrum from Q-tip abuse?

The Washington Post published a story this past spring about a study that looked at how personal space is handled all over the globe and a lot of it is based on culture more than any actual universal law of etiquette or health. Places like North America, Northern Europe and Asia displayed “non-contact culture” meaning people stood farther apart and touched less. “Contact-cultures” were found in places like South America in the Middle East. Also, personal space changes depending on those we encounter. Here in the U.S., we’re cool with close loved ones like spouses or siblings staying about 1.6 ft. away during conversation or a common activity. Personal acquaintances should stay a comfortable 2.3 ft. away and strangers need to back it up about 3.1 ft.. The study found that Romania and Saudi Arabia were standouts wanting strangers to back up at least 4 ft., while Argentina was OK with the strangers of the world remaining a mere 2 ft. away.

For a minute I found myself wondering, “Why am I like this?” I don’t consider myself to be anti-social. I regularly give compliments to strangers and greet folks particularly the ones I see regularly like the security guard in my office building. I try to prepare myself for the worse when it comes to situations like going to market the night before a snowstorm or a free concert in summer. I prepare to be annoyed, get bumped into or my foot stepped on, particularly when folks are hot, hungry and engaged in anything that involves waiting. The beauty in that is every once in a while you build solidarity and community with people who are inevitably strangers but can share in the frustration that is doing anything at the DMV and other mundane activities all adults have to struggle through. But at the end of the day, I am who I am. I’m not hugger. I hate when the dog circles my legs while I’m eating or and get regularly annoyed by my toddler who thinks for at least an hour each night that we’re attached at the hip. So when I’m in public the last thing I want to do is look over my shoulder to see some random person close enough to inhale my CO2.

I also think that since I’ve become a mother, my space and alone time are that much more important to me. I actually didn’t stop and think how the two were related until I sat down to write this, but personal space and alone time are just a few of the things you take for granted before motherhood. Now I have two-year-old that screams, “Mommy!” like she’s sinking with the Titanic every time I’m not within eyesight. My life now involves sneaking to eat an ice cream sandwich or a Little Debbie snack cake because I know I will be harassed with endless barrage of “Can I have some?” or a baby breathing and drooling on my late night snack the entire minute and half it takes to eat an oatmeal pie. So as friendly and polite as I can be, when I’m in public I feel like I shouldn’t have to school folks in basic common courtesy and the beauty of backing up off someone. Someone at a bank or ATM? Give then a few feet to look at their negative balance in private. And sis, your groceries aren’t getting scanned any faster by you doing a yoga move over my cart to throw some Ensure and TUMs on the belt. Lastly, if you see a customer rep assisting someone else maybe find another employee if you’re in a rush instead of interrupting my shopping experience. Oh and before I forget, the words “Excuse me” go a long way.  I am not telepathic and I don’t know your train stop is coming up and you need me to get up so you can get off if you aren’t willing to utter two simple words.

The study also recognized trends with personal space regardless of the zip code, such as women preferred more personal space with strangers than men did. People in warmer climates tended to keep less of a distance than those in colder climates and the older you are the farther away you stand in general. But wanting people to stay in their lane literally isn’t anything to be ashamed of and doesn’t make you a socially awkward hermit, it actually keeps you safe. A story published in TIME magazine in 2009 revealed that the idea of personal space is a function of the amygdalae, a part of the brain that interprets and prepares for situations that could be harmful. Basically, if you’re on a crowded train and “Will The Weed Smoker” is standing a bit too close, your brain sends a signal that it’s that much easier for him to choke you and stab you in the eye, even if the worst he’s capable of is giving you a mild case of contact before you head to the office.

In short, it’s summer, it’s hot and none of us are getting any cooler having some stranger linger over us while we do tasks we really don’t want to do in the first place. Be aware that there is a whole world outside yourself and people’s body language may send you warnings long before the “cuss out” comes. Just because we’re out in public doesn’t mean my personal space is fair game.

Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a  passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about  everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.

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